Things are looking good for beer-drinking gourmands. The better pub bistros in this town are an impressive lot. They range in style from the putting-the-bistro-in-bistro Bistro Moncur to the edgy and vinous Four in Hand and then back again to the Bellevue, where Stilton soufflé and the orecchiette with lentils and sage sit side by side with corned (wagyu) silverside with white sauce and Pat's famous pavlova. And that's just in Paddington.
Our pub bistros are a sort of proving ground, where marginal locations, turps-subsidised business models and/or a lack of management intervention can foster burgeoning kitchen talent. Luke Mangan and Brent Savage have both cooked in pubs, as have Cheong Liew and Jeremy Strode. It was Sydney pubs that were the springboards for David Thompson, Christine Manfield, Matt Moran, Sean Moran, Paul Merrony and a platoon of other highly influential individuals.
We covered The Restaurant at Three Weeds in these pages a couple of years ago when it first re-emerged from the cocoon of renovation after years as a die-hard backstreets Rozelle local. The precis of that review was, 'crikey, here's a makeover of an old boozer that's good, and what's more, they've got great food and a smart little wine list; get into it'. Former Banc-group chef Darrell Felstead steered the kitchen to net a star and a very respectable following. So what's changed? The little garden in the glassed courtyard out the back has filled with leaves, buds and blooms since we last visited, but, with Felstead having left to open his own place in Surry Hills, a change of chef and front-of-house are the most pertinent developments.
The new man in the kitchen, John Evans, has had plenty of time to get a handle on the pub dining thing. His Welsh-born parents left Melbourne for the mother country when he was a nipper, and it was as an adult with several years' experience in good hotels and starred restaurants around the UK that Evans returned, ostensibly for a year to check out his roots. That was a good decade ago, spent working first in Kings Cross's Mesclun, then under Luke Mangan when he first started making waves in Sydney at Bistro CBD. When Mangan left to open Salt, Evans worked at Est., the fine-dining flagship at the Establishment before returning to Bistro CBD as head chef. The last two years have seen Evans and his wife Sonia Greig, who runs the front-of-house, bringing culinary balm and succour to the people of Northbridge, running a great bistro out the back of the Northbridge Hotel.
As nice a local as the Northbridge was, the Weeds is a more polished proposition. A creamy potato and leek soup amuse-gueule smooths the transition from the bar to the muted, modern, attractively-lit tones of the dining room. The noise from the outside doesn't penetrate, but there is the sound of a well-lubricated crowd having a good time within to contend with.
Evans's is a menu you can jump into; short and sweet, with no padding. The tomato salad, on face value, could be taken to be yet another peace offering to hard done by vegetarians. Yet the deployment of juicy, fragrant rounds of oxheart tomatoes, ripe figs and a croquette of Meredith goat's cheese crumbed in brioche (deep-fried to the point where it's warm and giving), show the marks of someone who doesn't need to dig too deep in the modern cook's bag of tricks to impress. It's the same story with the rillettes of Kurobuta pork - lovely sweet meat slow-cooked until it's giving, but not given-in. Evans doesn't serve it potted, as is commonplace, but positioned as an attractive dais on a rectangular plate supporting a micro-herb salad shot through with pieces of crackling. Sourdough croûtons and a sprightly Granny Smith apple vinaigrette provide solid backup.
The hands-down winner for round one, though, is the quail. Not content to just bung a juicy bird on the plate, Evans confits the leg to team with the roasted breast - a nice play of textures - and his nod to the pub setting, in the form of a Scotch egg, is sweet. The egg is a tiny wee quail's offering, encased in a rich, porky forcemeat and fried golden, still gooey on the inside. I'll take 20. For light and shade on the plate, there's green beans and manzanillo olives. A great dish.
The main courses are pretty straightforward, with roasted or seared proteins their core (there's a sautéed gnocchi with cèpes and stuffed zucchini flower-number in there for the no-meat crowd). The fish-of-the-day barramundi I can take or leave, the cooking perfectly up to speed, the smoked eggplant purée and sauce gribiche appropriate accompaniments, but the flesh more on the mushy side than I enjoy. The rump of veal is perfectly polite, with (al dente) polenta and parmesan fondant, baby carrots, beans and green lentils. Polite, but not exciting.
I find more of a thrill in the 'saltimbocca' of pork. Rounds of roasted loin wrapped in sage share the plate with a chock of superbly cooked belly. Popular though the cut is, pork belly is rarely slow-cooked this well, the border between fat and meat just blurred enough, its skin crisped but not impervious to the knife. Most crucially, the play between the herb, the fat, the lean meat and spinach, sautéed apple and cider dressing is spot on.
Greig runs her floor with a very sunny manner. In addition to maintaining the wine list, which, for my money, punches above its weight (Max Allen gave it a wine-glass gong when he rated the lists of every establishment reviewed in our most recent restaurant guide), she also consults on the desserts. Her CV includes time styling and cooking for books, and her sweets were a highlight at Northbridge. The glass of layered panna cotta, raspberries and Moscato d'Asti jelly, a sort of sexed-up, spongeless trifle, is a feast for the eyes, though a bit stiff with gelatine. Ginger crème brûlée, though less of a pin-up, gets my spoon's vote. Properly gingery, its crème is satisfyingly brûléed, and in figs, Ligurian honey and pistachio tuile, it finds happy bedfellows.
The food here has been good for some time. John Evans's cooking, too, has been improving steadily over the years I've had the pleasure of eating it. The restaurant, even mid-week, is briskly busy, some diners a holdover from Darrell Felstead's days, others following Evans from the other side of the bridge. It's not hold-the-front-page material, but the stuff that the best of this city is built on, and could use more of. Not the flashes in the pan, but the work of people who do everyday food that's just a little bit out of the ordinary, and keep doing it, every day. Keeping it real. And that's just the sort of thing I'd like to raise a glass to.