Twelve bucks for three Saos. While some folks are saying the closure of Rockpool, Marque and Silvereye is the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, for others it's those five words that more accurately signal the decline of Western civilisation. Twelve bucks for three Saos. And six bucks for Jatz at Acme? It's a world gone mad, they say. That's like the emperor's new clothes being flogged on Etsy.
Me, I quite like a Sao. I've paid more and received less for other snacks in bars in Sydney over the years, and most of that $12 probably goes to the anchovies, pickled onions and tonne of Pepe Saya cultured butter that come with the Saos. And, hey, they're pretty bloody good with a beer. Welcome to The Dolphin.
And welcome to the Surry Hills pub circa 2016. It's a place that's home to cigarette machines and pokies, a place where you can still smoke on the balcony and watch the footy on a Saturday night, drink a schooner of Reschs, eat a Vili's pie hot from the warmer, and reel from the noise.
It's also more. Maurice Terzini, everyone's favourite fashion-forward renegade restaurateur, has turned the place upside down and inside out. His collaborators here are key to the success of the enterprise. To oversee the food across the dining room, wine room and public bar, Terzini has enlisted his chef from Icebergs in Bondi, Monty Koludrovic, with Dan Medcalf and Sam Cheetham running things day to day in the main kitchen and the wine room, respectively. James Hird, the former Buzo chef who transitioned into a front-of-house role at The Wine Library and is now group somm across Terzini's enterprises, has been given what looks like very nearly free rein with the booze.
Those Wallabies-loving throngs cramming the place on a Saturday night are lounging over a series of rooms that designer George Livissianis has stripped back to the bone in a manner reminiscent of the fine work he did at The Apollo and Café Paci. Acres of canvas stuck on walls and tied to columns give some parts the appearance of a padded cell with a Christo overlay. Artist Beni Single's totemic squiggles, rendered in a thick black line, bring a touch of the Keith Haring and more than a little Memphis whimsy to the plastic-wrapped banquettes and ottomans. Details such as white tulips bundled in a cylinder of glass on a mantelpiece under bare lightbulbs, meanwhile, wouldn't look amiss in a Roxette video clip circa "The Look". Christo, Keith Haring, Roxette - not your usual mood-board for a boozer, even on Crown Street.
And while we're speaking of hit singles from 1989, the tunes seem well chosen in light of the inner-city crowd that the Dolphin attracts - Television belting out "Marquee Moon" and The Undertones playing "Teenage Kicks" slipped between tracks from Roxy Music and PIL. They make a refreshing change from the '90s R&B and pop cloying-up playlists in restaurants and bars all over town.
No one shed a tear when the old Dolphin closed its doors. It had surrendered any real claim to character years ago, becoming one of those places where people only really go by default, because they don't know any better, or to order a hail-Mary drink after spending a penny. Charm was not key among its strengths. And nor is it a place where charm is a priority now. It's just too big for that, and shooting for charm would be a bit like putting lipstick on a tractor. No, the flavour at the new Dolphin is more a robust likeability, it's consistently better than it has to be.
Rare is the restaurant that troubles to set different fridges to six, 10, 13 and 15 degrees Celsius to show its wines at their best; in a pub it's downright outrageous. And while the fridges are stocked with some very fancy wines indeed and every care is taken to serve them in the very best nick, the place doesn't take itself too seriously. No one's going to look at you funny if you chase a bottle of the frankly delicious barbera Olek Bondonio grows in Piemonte with a sour beer.
Or a jug of White Russians.
That plastic jerry-can at the bar is filled with a red blend made by South Australian grape-whisperer Tom Shobbrook that's simply called Goose Juice. (To hear one of the French members of the excellent wine room staff give full voice to her accent pronouncing "goose juice" is to know true happiness.) Hooray for reverent irreverence.
Where the team at Neild Avenue, the last very large restaurant project undertaken by Terzini, were swamped by the first wave of customers and nevertruly found their feet, the mob at the Dolphin seem better prepared for the onslaught. Things get a little hairy on Friday and Saturday nights, true, but while walk-ins can be tricky and the scale of the place is overwhelming, by and large you can get fed and watered in a reasonably timely fashion.
The kitchen is more than up to the task. Sometimes the larger the menu, the less care you see taken with individual dishes. But this doesn't seem to be the case with The Dolphin. The fanciest eating is in the wine room, but the much more streamlined bar menu is also well executed. A wood-fired oven in the dining room takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting, but you don't get the sense that the pizza menu is there just to make things easier on the kitchen. Get a load of the level of detail the menu goes into on the subject of the pizza dough: "Centurion Organic Flour; 48hr Ferment; 1.33% yeast, 2% Olssons Sea Salt; Alto Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Filtered Water".
And apart from the anchovies it's all local.
Interior dining space of the Dolphin hotel.
The tomatoes are grown in New South Wales and Victoria, the cheese is made by Vanella in Marrickville. There's as much joy to be had in the relatively classic toppings (tomato, anchovy, capers, olives) as there is in the less orthodox outings (a rich and wintry mix of baked mushrooms, black truffle, ricotta, washed-rind cheese and parsley).
Good ingredients are there connecting the various dining options. This is refreshing; oftentimes the simple bigness of venues such as this pushes the sourcing of real produce into the too-hard basket. Instead, Koludrovic and his people go the extra mile, offering Papanui eggs (with blood sausage and bacon on a bap), mortadella (with green olive fritters) made barely a mile away at LP's Quality Meats and the excellent rice grown organically in the Riverina by the Randall family (misted with yellow wine in a risotto).
The chicken in the "cacciatore", a twice-cooked arrangement, juicy against a backdrop of tarragon, green olives and mushrooms, is free-range. And it comes with a bowl for the olive pits. Even the orange and grapefruit juice in the public bar, largely dispensed in the company of vodka, tequila and gin, is squeezed fresh.
The wine room charges a few more bob and adds a few more bells and whistles, moving away from the Australo-Italian flavour of the rest of the pub. There's pasta, but it's a wild ride of al dente cavatelli with fat coins of bone marrow, octopus and little crunchy bits of ink-stained pastry the kitchen calls "scrumphs" lifted straight from the menu at Icebergs. Pappadums are reimagined as vehicles for mouthfuls of raw bonito, shavings of foie gras and bonito jelly, while the salumi cabinet produces jamón Ibérico teamed with broad beans and Parmesan, a world of nutty goodness that explodes into life with a splash of sherry.
The ad-hoc, ram-raid quality of the Dolphin's decoration is sometimes mirrored by the food in some bumps and flubs in consistency. The Harry's Bar ham and cheese sandwich at the bar is golden, buttery perfection, but the bar burger is too small and dry to warrant its $18 price tag. In the dining room, crab spaghetti is soft, stodgy and forgettable, even with the judicious addition of bottarga and white wine to the sauce, but a chunky Bolognese in a tangle of wide strips of pappardelle, set off by the salty crumble of buffalo ricotta, is memorable in the best of ways.
Regular readers of this magazine will be aware that we have an ongoing obsession with finding a really good plate of pasta in the city of Sydney for under $20. (Laugh all you want. It's harder than it sounds. And definitely harder than it should be.) The spaghetti puttanesca on the Dolphin bar menu might be the answer. Densely saucy, hot, salty and spicy, it's loaded with glossy black olives cut in half, a variety of small tomatoes, a drift of crunchy pangrattato and lots of capers, some of them fried.
Insalata di Cesare.
There's also lots to like in the insalata di Cesare. It's not a straight Caesar (straight Caesars being for some reason something the chefs of Australia shun).
But it's good: cos hearts in halves and quarters, brown-bread croûtons the size of dice, fatty crisps of pancetta, torn anchovies, chives, and a whole soft-boiled egg. Nice. As befits a place where alcohol is the through-line, sweets are not a big part of the picture. That said, the wood fire brings special deliciousness to a dense, nut-studded lemon pudding, and there's a refreshing absence of doilies, mint, fanned strawberry and icing sugar involved in the Zokoko chocolate tiramisù.
And what's not to like about house-made wine gums, especially when they're flavoured with Adelaide Hills chardonnay and Goose Juice?
So here's a snapshot of the Surry Hills pub circa 2016, a successful marriage of the old school and new. Toilets with bespoke graffiti and Swisse lemongrass handwash. Bar snacks running from cabanossi to bits of fried pig's head. Steak and chips upstairs and bagna cauda-flavoured raw beef downstairs. Chips and smokes and beers and noise, wine and cocktails and salumi and conversation - hopefully all at the same table. The Dolphin merrily refutes the idea that the pub of today has to be one camp or the other, and for all its fine food and drink, it feels boisterous and convivial the way a pub should. Twelve-dollar Saos and all.