I'm trying to think of other desserts that would benefit from having duck poured all over them. The most impressive dish at The Devonshire is a main course concerned with duck. This duck breast has been cooked by someone who knows what they're doing. You can see this in the way the breast is pink and juicy, glistening with sauce, but with none of the sterile airline-dullness that typifies the kind of vacuum-packed duck breast cooked slowly in a temperature-regulated water bath that's now commonplace in pricey restaurants the world over. But the breast isn't the main event. Not for me, anyway.
The thing that's really interesting here is the fig tart. It's a pretty straight fig tart - round cross-sections of the fruit laid into a rectangle of pastry, the figs caramelised under fig juice. Here's the really clever part: the kitchen takes this perfectly pristine piece of pastry and ladles a big, salty, savoury, rich dollop of shredded duck-leg meat, baby onions and roasting juices all over it. This probably wouldn't be so great with a pavlova, and I don't think the treatment would benefit a crème brûlée in quite the same way. Equally, the fig tart would do few favours to a T-bone or a plate of spaghetti. But with this particular duck, it really works, a real greater-than-the-sum-of-parts job. It's a surprising and impressive effect achieved by the chef, and there's not a chemical gelling agent, a bottle of sriracha sauce or a leaf of foraged wood sorrel in sight.
The chef and co-owner at The Devonshire is a guy named Jeremy Bentley. The two most notable places he worked before he arrived here on Devonshire Street in Surry Hills were The Square in London and Restaurant Balzac in Randwick. My experience of these two restaurants has been positive. What I think might be their most interesting common factor is that as flavour-packed as the dishes they serve seem on the written menu, what arrives at the table is even more potent still. This is not to say it's inelegant, ham-fisted stuff, or that chefs Matthew Kemp (a Devonshire backer) and Philip Howard are incapable of subtlety. They're definitely as apt to finely tune a chervil garnish as the next man, and their dishes are nothing if not balanced. But you know when you go to Balzac or The Square that you're not going to have to look far for flavour, and the ingredients on the plate are going to taste very much of themselves. And then some. And it's the same story at The Devonshire.
What you don't get at The Devonshire is a room of extraordinary elegance. It's comfortable, with good solid chairs and plenty of linen on the tables, but the noise bouncing off the tiled floors around the long room can be tiring. The lighting still needs work, and the framed mirrors clustered tightly down the east wall speak more to careful budget management and a cheerfully DIY approach to renovation than to memorable design. The wine list is curiously underpowered, especially in a year where smaller producers, lesser-known appellations, unfamiliar grapes and unusual winemaking techniques are being celebrated in exciting lists all over town. There's quite a bit to buy under the $60 mark, which for this neighbourhood is apt, but not a lot you necessarily want to drink. It's getting there.
But ground lost on these shortcomings is recovered readily by the way things are played on the floor. This is not to say that the service has been, to date, flawless. I've been to the restaurant a couple of times now, and on each occasion there's been a dropped stitch - a forgotten side, a lost order of mineral water. But it's small stuff; the things that count for me are there - the waiters know the menu back to front, and the dishes issue from the kitchen at a rapid pace, spaced appropriately. Matthew Jolly, a waiter I last saw working at Bécasse on Clarence Street, knows his business and puts in an urbane turn as restaurant manager, his performance bolstered as much by wit as by expertise.
Chef Bentley's cooking has elements more in common with the Franglais cooking of the Banc boys - Bécasse's Justin North, Balzac's Kemp, Assiette's Warren Turnbull and Four in Hand's Colin Fassnidge - and with the Jeremy Strode, Paul Wilson, Michael Lambie, Donovan Cooke Melbourne Brit-pack before them than it does with the envelope-pushers at Marque and Quay or the American-influenced boy-food brat-packers at Duke and Ms G's.
This means that the seared scallops will be seared bang-on and will come with fat streaks of celeriac purée dyed jet with squid ink. That mussels will become little beignets before they garnish the mulloway, dressed with a surprising sardine vinaigrette. If things can be passed, moulded, reduced, moussed, sauced or set, they will be. It means there'll be extras, and these extras will be good. Two types of butter instead of one. A little appetiser of creamed salt fish made with fish the kitchen has salted in-house. More, in other words, is more.
This particular chef milieu is also known to have an affinity with offal. Tongue and sweetbreads are commonplace on their menus. The Devonshire goes one better, putting both organs (taken from a veal carcass of tender years, I'd say) on the same plate. The tongue blows a raspberry (figuratively speaking) over a rémoulade-like hill of Brussels sprout coleslaw, the sweetbread is showered with a fine grating of almond. The tawny flavour of Madeira, completely classical and completely appropriate here, brings everything together on the plate. The textures are elegant, the flavours clear.
There's something faintly traif about serving cooked birds in any kind of nest, not least of all with the accompaniment of its eggs, fried golden without and bright and gooey within. But the nest, a crisp wide band of fried potato strings feathered with frisée leaves, is certainly a marked improvement on other examples from the edible-basket genre. It has flavour, for one thing, and once you've done the tremendously satisfying job of smashing it to bits, it really does add a useful textural counterpoint to the bits of quail in their tomatoey, mustardy sauce.
Desserts can confound the classicism, and in a good way. The little play on Devonshire tea could verge into twee territory if it weren't for the fact that (a) the place is, after all, called The Devonshire and located on Devonshire Street and (b) the dish is executed really nicely. It's a tea-flavoured crème brûlée set in (of course!) a dainty china teacup. The scones appear in ice-cream form, which is pretty groovy, and the other boxes are ticked with an attractively chunky cherry jam and a quenelle of cream. If the cup still bothers you, take a punt at the pineapple pudding. If you were expecting it to be a narrow, near-foot-long tranche of caramelised pudding under ice-cream and swimming in pineapple soup you're one up on me, but the surprise is pleasant and it works.
It's abundantly clear that Bentley is a confident chef in possession of the skills and good taste to rock this part of Surry Hills with thoroughly accomplished cooking in a way it hasn't seen before. Even if not every loose end in the rest of the restaurant package has been neatly tied away, that's an engine that will see it across the finish line and roaring comfortably back for a victory lap.