Fine dining dead? Hardly. Fancy restaurants in Australia have probably never been fancier. Nonetheless I'm backing 2012 as the year of small things done well. For me, most of the excitement in Sydney in recent months hasn't been at the seven-figure-fit-out end of the market. I think, as diners, we've now come to expect signs of thought and genuine care at the everyday level, at the kind of eateries where a couple (or even two couples) can pay the bill and expect change out of $200. Two of the city's most recent openings, Wilbur's Place and Reuben Hills, have anticipated the trend perfectly and captured the flavour of what's to come in 2012 in a winning way.
Both are, if you'll pardon the phrase, brand extensions from existing Sydney players. Reuben Hills is the brain-child of Nathan Borg and Russell Beard, a café veteran who scored a hit most recently with The Source in Mosman; Wilbur's Place is a lateral move from Paul Allam and David McGuinness, the pair responsible for the seemingly unstoppable Bourke Street bakeries. In either case you're looking at the kind of operators you can only hope open in your neighbourhood or within walking distance of work, seasoned professionals deeply embedded in their respective hospitality subcultures.
Allam and McGuinness had more or less broken with their restaurant backgrounds when they opened the first Bourke Street Bakery back in the balmy winter of '04. Now, with the opening of Wilbur's, on the newly de-sleazed Llankelly Place, they've set Kings Cross as the scene for their return to cooking. Sort of. The Wilbur's that opened over the summer grew out of a pork roll (hence the name). The pair were inspired by the porchetta vendors of Italy, vans or stalls which sell roast pork by the slice or the sandwich. From that seed sprang the shoots of ideas for other dishes, and the idea of an all-day eatery grew into the 20-seater now packing them in breakfast, lunch and dinner. The porchetta is excellent, incidentally - Allam, writer of the menus, takes a saddle of pork (the loin and the belly), marinates it overnight with plenty of salt, fennel seeds, grated fennel, thyme, rosemary, pepper and confit garlic, then roasts it slowly till the skin is crisp and the meat acquiescent. Some of the fat thrown off in the roasting is incorporated into the mayonnaise that accompanies the slices on the porchetta roll in true Italian street-hawker style. The beef, the other menu mainstay, gets a similar treatment - the pointend of Coorong brisket is brined with pickling spice, then cooked gently till it cries uncle. In sandwich form, it's not for the faint of heart, releasing juice enough to run down your wrist. Ooh baby.
If that sounds a bit high-powered, both the brisket and the porchetta assume more genteel forms on the plate, either with the very spare beans and (predictably excellent) bread treatment or, in the case of the pork, freshened up in a simple but elegantly proportioned salad with walnuts, fennel and apple, crunchy with croûtons and crackling, sparkling with red wine vinegar. Allam wants to keep things as simple as possible, the menu manageable in the miniscule kitchen. Large, puffy gougères and buns filled with rhubarb custard do double duty as snacks and as bookends to a meal, while a surprisingly polished duck liver parfait with toast and pickled fennel works equally well as an entrée and elevenses.
The dinner-only dishes change often but are reliably minimal and blessedly unfussy in their conception. Inside-skirt steak with crisp polenta and caponata. Duck leg with roasted plums set off with vincotto. Desserts are similarly short and sweet, whether it's the toasted brioche ice-cream sandwich with caramel or the fruit-fresh roulade-style pav. And here's the kicker: it's all under $20, a price-point that's frankly remarkable in Sydney in 2012. Sacrifices have of course been made to hit that mark: the tables are small, the service style is fast-paced, the bells and whistles are few, but it's completely magnetic nonetheless.
Where Wilbur's is styled more like an eatery, Reuben Hills is a straight-down-the-line café, but it's a pretty blurry line, especially by day, and both are marked by some pretty tasty design. Exposed original brickwork and a sort of palimpsest effect are common to both.
The fit-out for Reuben Hills, which presumably involved not just the gutting of a building running the whole width of a Surry Hills block but some serious structural work, is impressive. The first floor is given over to deluxe roasting equipment, and on the ground floor, where the cooking, eating and coffee drinking happen, the caffeine-tech in evidence is equally tasty. Not that they flaunt it, exactly - there's no one waving their arms saying hey, check out our Aeropress, but it's there for those who want it. For the rest of us, you can simply order a coffee, however you like it, with the assurance it'll be exemplary. Or you can gently delve a little further with the five-dollar espresso of the day (Burundi Kiryama Lot 16 today, a beautifully balanced coffee from Central Africa) or a choice of filter brews: the Kiryama, or, at $7, one made with beans from the celebrated Hacienda La Esmeralda, a high-elevation Panamanian farm. The latter is held in such high regard by hard-core bean-strokers that the mere mention of its name makes their hearts beat that little bit more arrhythmically. Just about everywhere you cast your gaze reveals something else done right (except maybe the tiled banquette; that's just cruel). The sugar on the tables is panela, the crumbly, flavoursome unrefined cane sugar of Latin America. Even the tea is "high altitude".
The menu is less about setting pulses racing than producing big smiles. There's something eminently likable about a carte that includes salted caramel and black sesame milkshakes and a definition of the baleada ("Bal-ya-da; originates from El Progreso Honduras… a wheat flour tortilla, often quite thick, folded in half… the ones we were eating always had cheese & egg and some sort of meat") on the same folded piece of A4. The baleadas are as advertised, appearing unadorned on nanna-print plates with your choice of eggs (queso fresco, black beans), or pork (a ruddy mix of smoked paprika, fried onions, more beans, and chimol, a radish-spiked Salvadoran salsa). As a further nod, perhaps, to the Latin American coffee connection, there are also light, corn-bright empanadas, stuffed with beef and baked in the Colombian style. Chunks of smoked sweet potato add interest to a deft little ceviche, the dice of ocean trout quick-cured in lime juice and chilli. The mix is leavened with kernels of roast corn and julienned radish, and served with witlof leaves as scoops. Chef Megan McCulloch doesn't feel the need to cleave too closely to tradition with her rendition of the Reuben sandwich, eschewing straight sauerkraut for a more slaw-like mix, drawing carrot, caraway and fennel into its mayo-daubed web of intrigue. The beef is brisket, the cheese Manchego, the result a juicy handful.
And the salt caramel milkshake? I'd characterise it along the lines of a lunch-ending dairy bomb, a liquid dessert, a meal in itself. I wouldn't advise attempting swimming within three days of drinking a whole one. Besides, you probably want to hold back some space for the "doggs breakfast", a solid little ice-cream sandwich that's built along dense Monaco Bar lines. Or possibly the simple pleasures of a plate of brioche, whipped mascarpone and some dulce de leche. And another coffee. Definitely another coffee. Yep, this menu is fun.
This style of menu is exactly the counterpoint you need when the degree of coffee obsession observed here could, in some eyes, seem to border on the aloof or elitist. Thankfully, Reuben Hills comes across as nothing of the sort, even before you factor in the friendliness of the staff and the vibe driven by the excellent sound system. In this breakfast-loving, espresso-proud city, finding very high-end coffee and genuinely interesting, well executed food under the one roof remains a rarity. Reuben Hills has bucked the trend without sacrificing any cred along the way. Let's hope many follow in its wake.