Ross Lusted is scary with a knife. Scary-good, that is. When you think about it, cooking at its most essential comes down to fire and knives. At The Bridge Room, undoubtedly one of the most interesting restaurants to have opened in Sydney this year, Lusted shows off his mastery of both. The Bridge Room doesn't come with any sort of bizarre knives-and-fire manifesto (though that would certainly be interesting), of course, and it's not a Luddite theme-restaurant. There's a lot more going on with the cooking than chopping and burning, in other words, but there's a technical facility here that's hard not to admire, especially in this era of push-button cooking.
Raw beef shoulder, an entrée, is almost all knife and no fire. Neither carpaccio nor tartare, it comprises gossamer-thin sheets of well-marbled pink-and-white wagyu draped over little bundles of smoked enoki mushrooms, accented with Microplaned horseradish and what the menu tells me is Celtic sea salt. Impossibly thin rings of pickled chilli are an inspired addition. Smoke plays more of a part in a veal sweetbreads special. Bincho-tan, the Japanese charcoal prized by cooks for its clean, even burn, is a favourite in the Bridge Room kitchen, and the succulence of these sweetbreads (paired with an onion purée) is testament to its value.
Prawns also come in for the grill treatment. Four sizeable specimens come to the table on the shell split down the middle and charry around the edges, cooked to the point where their centres are just glassy. They're brushed with a butter flavoured with mandarin peel, scattered with coriander cress and accompanied by a wedge of lime, but the dominant flavour is prawn. I can see some diners thinking it's a bit light on, in terms of substance, for a $26 entrée (you'd certainly be wise to pair it with one of the more substantial main courses), but the pure quality of the core ingredients and their handling can't be faulted.
Quiet quality seems to be the name of the game across the board here. They've eschewed cloths, opting instead for Noma-esque circles of thick felt which function as placemats. Decoration is minimal - a large framed photograph of some huskies, a patterned sculptural felt wall that does double-duty as a sound baffle - leaving the bones of the deco building to shine. The tables are pale oak, the chairs expensive-looking and comfortable. The feel overall is spare, Scandinavian and functional. It reminds me vaguely of Sepia. Not the food, of course, which is completely different in inspiration and emphasis, but in the corporate-luxe atmosphere, and in the way the front-of-house is an ensemble cast of seasoned professionals who give a clear impression that they want the restaurant to be as good as it can be. Manager Zelka Pierce and sommelier Helen McGahan do stand-out work running the floor, and Sunny Lusted, in her role as general manager, is a calming presence. Wine-wise, The Bridge Room more than holds its own. The Lusteds have given McGahan her head and she is showing herself to be a young Sydney sommelier to watch. She displays the kind of intimacy with both the menu and the adventurous, elegant wine list that marks the difference between a good restaurant and a great one.
Ross Lusted is no stranger to Sydney dining. He was a Rockpool head chef in the 1990s and also launched Harbour Kitchen & Bar at the Park Hyatt to acclaim before he and Sunny left for Asia. Singapore was their first stop, where Lusted cooked at Mezza9, and then the pair joined Aman, running resorts in Bali, Montenegro, Bhutan and, mostly recently, Utah. David Thompson was another of Lusted's early mentors, and touches of Thai and Chinese cooking distinguish several dishes. Sometimes it's relatively subtle, as in the case of the Thai-inspired dressing enlivening a salad of oysters, cured pork, radicchio and apple, or it can be the basis for the whole dish, as with the white-cut chicken.
Here the very juicy poached bird is joined in the bowl by many of the flavours you'd see in Chinese chicken dishes: a long spear of cucumber, amazingly fine shreds of ginger, leaves of basil, slivers of green onion. Rather than Hainan chicken-style rice, the carb component in this instance is a bowl of "new season" brown rice, to the side. You want attention to detail? Every bean sprout in the not insubstantial pile on the plate is topped and tailed. A ladle of broth (presumably the poaching liquid) sets the whole thing off. The result is a dish so fragrant you can smell it literally a table away.
This is not to say Asia is Lusted's sole culinary touchstone. His influences are broad - biltong from his native South Africa makes an appearance with corn and scallops (and McGahan, for her part, has slipped smart South African drops onto the wine list), while mustard fruits and vincotto figs contrast with smoky slow-cooked-then-grilled duck. Roast swordfish is Mediterranean all the way, with tomato, black cabbage and olive cheeks making a star of a fish that's so often relegated to cooking-by-the-numbers menu-filler.
David Blackmore's wagyu reappears in a main course that's bound to be a smashing success with beef-loving corporate raiders. It's the steak you want to order when you don't want to do anything so boring as order the steak. There's a perfect char on the crust of the sirloin, and the unexpected partnering of poached veal tongue in a nest of julienne strips with a duck-egg dressing, mushroom caps sliced into paper-thin rounds and halved shallots is confident, intelligent and completely successful in its execution. A dollop of puréed Dutch cream potato makes for a mash that's sweet without being needlessly buttery. It's a great dish.
Assured stuff, this. It also comes out with speed that's almost startling, especially when you take into consideration the complexity of the dishes and the exactitude they demand. And that goes double when you're trying to find time for a good lunch without sacrificing a whole afternoon. Lusted and chef de cuisine Stephen Moore have the skills to pay the bills.
It's the same with desserts. You've barely finished uttering the words "burnt caramel cream with candied beurre Bosc pears" when there it is, a small bowl of brûlée, curls of the midget fruits on top with pistachio and mint, booze-soaked raisins lurking underneath the crisp caramel. It's tough to say what's better - this or the very South East Asian collation of young coconut, passionfruit, young coconut ice, mango and translucent lozenge-like candied palm seeds. The play of textures with the latter, a shifting landscape in your mouth of the silken, the slippery, the crumbly, the icy and the slightly giving, is every bit as rewarding as the brightness of the sultry tropical flavours on offer. You might just have to order both.
There's a completeness here that's quietly dazzling. The room doesn't quite have the buzz it needs yet, the electricity on the floor, but the Lusteds have set the stage with enviable grace. The food coming out of this kitchen is neither of the smears, foams and crumbs mode, nor of the school of artfully scattered flowers. It's modern, it's different, it's compelling, and it's a bridge you're going to want to cross time and time again.