This restaurant has closed.
It's been brought to my attention that we talk about Negronis far too much in this magazine. If you're one of the lucky few who haven't found this to be the case, the Negroni is an Italian apéritif consisting of equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, served on the rocks in a tumbler, typically with a wedge of orange as a garnish. The late Douglas Adams once likened the effect of a particular cocktail of his creation to having one's brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. The Negroni is like that, only tastier. And with orange. It's the peak of human sophistication in a glass, by turns bitter, strong and sweet, yielding the odd vegetal, almost savoury note here and there as you sip your way through it. By the time you get to the end, you're definitely not the same person you were at the beginning, and that's doubly the case when you're drinking them by the carafe at The Beresford.
The Beresford is a pub at heart, but a pub for now. It retains many of the aspects of the great Australian pub archetype we all have lurking in the backs of our brains. Expanses of tile. Touches of what no drinking man would ever call Art Deco. An open-endedness of purpose, a certain play of light in the late afternoon. It also incorporates the new: toilets that are not only hygienic but positively welcoming and artfully mood-lit. It has a jukebox encompassing AC/DC, Radiohead, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers and Mötley Crüe, yet typically issues more soigné tunes. Gerry Nass, the hotel's general manager, invited a cross-section of Sydneysiders to contribute their own mixed tapes to the selection, and it makes for rich listening (who would have pegged fashion designer Marnie Skillings as a fan of Eminem's 'Ass Like That'?). If there are flat-screens here, they're kept mercifully out of sight. You can't smoke inside, of course, but the filter-tip crowd is comfortably accommodated in a large tree-dotted beer garden that will look much less like a correctional exercise yard once the plants settle in.
The vast oval-shaped bar dispenses many fine beers, running the gamut from the proper Japanese Asahi to Coopers Original Pale Ale. It also has serious cocktail firepower. Alexx Swainston, bartender-at-large, valued GT contributor and 'advocate of the sublime' (it's on her card), has consulted on the list, and, with former Bayswater Brasserie big gun Andy Penney running the show, it's a dangerous place to wander with a loaded credit card. The list is weighty but not unwieldy, and inventive without trying too hard. Under the section marked Grande Aperitivi, you'll find a selection of drinks of an Italian bent that are available by the glass or by the 500ml vessel. The Negroni is not a difficult drink to make correctly, but whether it's the atmospheric conditions, The Clash on the stereo, or the precise mix of Campari, Rosso Antica Formula and Plymouth gin, The Beresford example is a fine one. That's it for Negronis now, promise.
While you're at the bar, ask the tender to rustle up some snacks. Simple things like olives and almonds are surprisingly tasty, as are the 'hand-rolled' grissini. The chips aren't amazing, but the antipasto is. It's a board with good hunks of palate-itching parmesan, Quattro Stelle salumi and other fine things. The pork belly skewered on rosemary wants for seasoning, but the fried calamari, on its little square of paper, is lusciously tender. I haven't mustered the damn-it-all resolve (and the $140) to order the Iranian caviar with toast soldiers yet, but I can speak for the burger. Rumour has it that the kitchen wanted to call it the Wogburger. As excitingly post-modern as that may have been, it's listed as the Betty burger on the menu, but the Mediterranean influence is certainly there in the taste. The hand-cut meat is topped and tailed with provolone, pancetta, beetroot and onions. The bun is wonderfully non-poncy, and house-made tomato sauce, chips ('patate fritte', ahem) and a little dish of cornichons join it on the plate. It's 18 bucks, yes, but it's also damned fine.
Then there's the restaurant itself. Residing in the half-dark between the public bar and the beer garden, it's divided diagonally by a tall glass case full of vintage shakers and other cocktail knick-knacks. The restaurant bar and its open kitchen are faced in what looks like burnished bronze, which catches the sun and lends the room some warmth. The other lighting comes courtesy of adjustable twisty lamps that spiral down from the ceiling. I find them hard to love. The cork-topped tables aren't clothed, but the general look is pretty slick. It's an impression shored up by the nattiness of the black and indigo ensembles adorning the many and varied waiters.
The menu Russo has written is rather large. You might recognise a couple of dishes from the time he was cooking at the now-defunct Lo Studio: crab-stuffed squid-ink tortellini, say, or the memorably unusual dessert combining chocolate and eggplant. Stuzzichini, in case you missed the memo, is the trendy term for little Italian snacky things. Under this heading, you should hit the bruschettina with wild boar lardo. Yes, little toasts topped with ribbons of wild pig fat. And rosemary. Among the antipasti, Russo's take on vitello tonnato, with slices of poached veal tongue in place of the standard veal, and diced raw yellowfin instead of tinned tuna, wins points for inventiveness, but I can't say I'd pick it over what I'm sure would be a brilliant version of the standard on his watch. Sweetbreads with blood sausage and hazelnuts is a bit more like it. The gnocchi with peas, zucchini flowers, mint and cacio-ricotta (a sharp sheep's milk cheese) would get my vote if the superb gnocchi had been teamed with the ingredients without being bathed in a purée of same.
Then there are the classics: the Norcina-style sausage coiled, unadorned, on braised lentils is outstanding, and the schnitzel (costoletta alla Milanese) also has merit. There's lots to like in the pasta section. The meatballs in the tagliatelle aren't much bigger than peas, and they marry wonderfully with the silky pasta and the turnip tops surrounding them. (The truffle products stinking up this and other dishes doubtless have their fans, but I'm not one of them.) Supple, elastic pasta is the star in pappardelle with wild boar and porcini ragù, the meat appearing in abundant, satisfying hunks, the mushroom chunks like slippery little morsels of marrow. Note that these and almost everything else on the menu clock in at less than $30 a pop - quite something in this age of $42 oxtail ragù and $29 salumi plates.
The wine list is interestingly sprawling and thoroughly Italian. There's a large number of drinkable bottles offered for under $50 (house wines are listed, amusingly, as 'cheap', 'decent' and 'good') and wines by the glass are, boldly, almost all Italian. The selection of amari and digestivi is prodigious. Test your mettle with the hugely bitter Toro Centerba Forte. It made my shins tingle.
The dessert that impresses me most isn't on the menu. It's not the zuppa Inglese, pretty meringue-topped trifle that it is. The intrigue of candied chickpeas (similar to a nutty praline) and elegant olive-oil gelato draws attention successfully from the undistinguished pastry on the date and chocolate tart they accompany, but it's not that either. It's the thumbnail-sized cannoli that come with the coffee. Palpably fresh, seductively fragile and clean on the tongue, they're so good you might find yourself dallying with the thought that Russo could found a restaurant empire on tiny-scale models of popular Italian dishes.
I have few gripes here, though lack of seasoning was a theme early in the piece, but the key one is that this menu is pretty much identical to the sneak preview that appeared in the GT offices in July. Such wintry fare as rabbit and chestnuts, sausage and lentils, cavolo nero and celeriac, and so on, doesn't exactly scream seasonality this time of the year, but, hey, I guess the proof is in the eating.
Whatever failings the restaurant may have, you'll find yourself drawn to explore the rest of the menu. Good as it may be, the dining is just one part of the bigger picture and I suspect that's been the plan all along. As the music takes almost Babbo-like turns, the primacy of the pub is clear. Halfway between the velvet-roped corporate funk of Justin Hemmes' fantasies and the methodical madness of Maurice Terzini's creations, out here on the perimeter between the city and Bondi, there's something new in town. And it goes down great with a Negroni.