Order with impunity, sweet vegetarians, for dinner at Yellow is now free from the meat of beasts. No more do you need to query the dashi, cross-examine the stock, and Google the jelly: no animals were harmed in the production of your meal. So while restaurants everywhere else go about their business, Thermomixing kittens, Microplaning bleary-eyed puppies and introducing to the business end of mandolins, all in the name of culinary excellence, things aren't like that here. Not anymore. Because Yellow, as of February, became the first Sydney restaurant of note to turn vegetarian. Not vegetarian-friendly. Not vegaquarian. Vegetarian.
It's quite something. And not least because it was a pretty well-liked restaurant to begin with. Since Nick Hildebrandt and Brent Savage, the sommelier-and-chef team behind Bentley and Monopole, two of the city's proudest enduring beacons of uncompromising restaurant success, took over the business and turned it into Bentley-goes-bistro in 2013, it's been a favourite of both the critics and Potts Point locals. A restaurant liked as much for its friendly prices and consistently personable service as for its adventurous eats and drinks. They sold it as "bistro", but it was more like 90 per cent Brent Savage and 10 per cent bistro, with Savage preferring the why-not-have-this-with-deer-blood-sausage-how-about-some-pickled-kohlrabi-this-dessert-clearly-needs-more-spelt approach over the school of thought that uses a fourth-hand photocopy of the 1998 Balthazar menu instead.
The latest twist in giving the people what they might not know they want yet is this turn from Yellow to green. Or purple and orange and variegated hues, if Savage's network of bespoke veg suppliers has any say. And it may in fact be exactly what the people want. Despite the bilious eruptions from a few vocal trolls to the news online that one high-end restaurant in Australia had decided to concentrate on offering its patrons a vegetarian menu (you'd have thought, from the virulence of some of these comments Yellow had announced a menu of Thermomixed kittens and finely sliced ponies with a dusting of grated puppy), it seems like an idea whose time has come. Bentley, Yellow and Monopole had offered vegan tasting menus for some years already, just about every restaurant of note in the country takes its vegetarian food seriously now, and most of us have given up making fun of vegetarians themselves. (Vegans, of course are still fair game, and fake-allergy sufferers, like the would-be lactards who are okay with ice-cream, offer a target-rich environment for scorn.)
So the question isn't really "is this a thing?" so much as "is this thing tasty?" In the case of Yellow, the answer is yes, with some qualifications. Whatever my herbivore brothers and sisters say, working with a narrowed palette brings its challenges, and I think it'll take a bit of time before team Yellow settles comfortably into its greener groove. The things that omnivores frequently miss in vegetarian food (or at least this particular omnivore) are texture and savour. The traditional responses to these things in the kitchen are the deployment of transformative processes such as drying, pickling, curing, smoking and so on to answer the first point (and sometimes the second, too), and then paying careful heed to umami levels (upping them with mushrooms, ferments, seaweeds and the like).
Savage has always liked taking an alchemical approach to the textures of vegetables, right back to the careful smears, gels and drizzles that characterised much of the food at Bentley in its Crown Street early years. There's elements of this approach at Yellow now. Pumpkin becomes both chips and dip: crisps, given a dusting of toasty coriander seed, with a pale purée of pumpkin. Splendid. But I think I have more admiration for when they've worked the other way around. Where sometimes it seems like contemporary cooking is geared to crunch and goo with nothing in between, there is a great deal to be said for the many subtle distinctions nature gives us. (Much of classical Chinese cuisine was devoted to the understanding, control and manipulation of fine gradations of texture, and with good reason.) The pleasure of a plate of little Mexican cucumbers, set on a bed of their own salted juices, their sour, almost watermelony tang and texture picked out by the anise top-notes of Greek basil, comes from the kitchen letting them largely do their thing. Heirloom potatoes dressed with mustard, dusted with richly savoury cured egg yolk and lolling in house-made ricotta have flavour for days, but it's the variations in texture between the baby new roses, royal blues and King Edwards that lift it well beyond fancy-side dish territory.
The other challenge is one that Yellow has manufactured for itself. The menu is designed to be shared, you're told. But no one seems to have told the kitchen. The guys at the pass are sending out plates of perfectly tweezered and manicured food that is frequently so far from being share-friendly it's almost absurd. Try splitting the pea dish, carefully spooning pea mousse (nicely tinged with wasabi), curls of pickled radish and a dust of toasted buttermilk, divvying up the leaves of ice plant and nasturtium equitably, trying not to rain fermented cos juice and dill oil and peas over the table and your companions as you go. Between two it's trying. Between four I don't know where I'd start, but I think you're going to have to kiss your ice-plant goodbye.
Pea mousse, pickled daikon and toasted buttermilk
Maybe this is also a question of busyness. For one of the larger courses, strips of purple carrot are salted to soften them enough to be rolled, then they're roasted. They're set on buckwheat (some of it cooked tender, some of it puffed crunchy), sauced with a juice of orange carrots, and topped with heavily dressed raw kale as a garnish. Each of these components is a discrete unit of deliciousness (okay, except maybe the salted purple carrot; that's tough to get excited about) but they compete rather than cohere. Frames of reference for pairing vegetables with vegetables with vegetables can be hard to come by.
There again, baby corn is complemented to pretty effect by an almond-on-almond-on-almond arrangement of an almond oil dressing and a dollop of skordalia made of almonds, garlic and breadcrumbs and a scattering of "crunch" made of candied roast almond.
In the parsnip pappardelle, it's more a question of contrast. Ribbons of parsnip, cooked in cultured cream, are topped with parsnip crisp and nested around parsnip purée and an egg yolk. Mix the lot together and you've got the sweetness of the parsnip, the sweetness of the parsnip and the sweetness of the parsnip, plus the sweetness of the egg, not quite successfully relieved by a scattering of slices of char-grilled pine mushroom. You can see the egg-plus-pappardelle-plus-mushrooms-equals-awesome thinking underpinning this one, but it doesn't quite add up to unalloyed delight on the plate.
If you're looking for freshness, turn instead to a geodesic dome of rounds of summer squash concealing purple beans and zucchini cut to echo the shape of the beans. It's a vibrant celebration of the season, pure sunshine held together by the accompaniment of pistachio nuts and yoghurt shot through with turmeric, cumin and coriander. Acid in the form of a lemon vinaigrette, and the toasty flavour of powdered zucchini skins keep things moreish.
The single best thing on the menu might be a dessert. Not all the desserts: the carrot-coconut-coffee thing strikes me as something that woke up on the wrong side of the Aesop tube. But the fennel-pollen ice-cream, set on a richly flavoured cake of concentrated fennel, sheathed in thin slices of blood plum and splashed with plum vinegar is something else. It takes some of the best fruit of late summer and rings it like a bell, clear and pure.
The thing that takes it all to the next level is the quality of Yellow's restaurant-craft. Allow me to now gleefully generalise about vegetarian and vegan restaurants of the old-school. They're frequently run by people with scant understanding of the essentials of hospitality: investment in excellent ingredients, the delivery of plates of food in a timely and friendly fashion, an elementary understanding of style and comfort - you know, the little things. Yellow, on the other hand, is confidently built from parts that are as sturdy as they are shiny. It's precisely Savage's willingness to take chances that keeps his food interesting, and his work remains matched thrill-for-thrill by the unfailing brilliance of Nick Hildebrandt's wine lists.
Very few sommeliers in this country can equal Hildebrandt's palate, nor his gift for anticipating what his customers want to drink. He is far from a Kool-Aid-drinking member of the natural juice club, and yet was an early advocate of the joys of wines made in the non-interventionist, oxidative and skin-contact schools of wine-making. ("They just have to be good," would be a typically dry interjection from Hildebrandt at this point in this conversation.) This means that while Yellow's cellar is the most natural of any under his care, and offers plenty that is cloudy (Mendall macabeo), nutty (Equipo Navazos "Florpower" Palomino), rich in texture (Claude Courtois romorantin) or just plain unusual (Chapter sauvignon blanc), it also allows its customers the perfectly classical joys of Weingut Salomon riesling, Kracher gris and Bass Phillip chardonnay. Turns out you can enjoy Stravinsky without having to surrender your appreciation for the genius of Beethoven. And there's always plenty on the list for $14 a glass and under.
Pascale Gomes-McNabb's design for the pair of rooms retains her signature sultriness and intrigue, picked out in layered detail of textures and materials on the walls, all circles and cut-out rectangles and round mirrors, clustered, carefully drawn lighting and a cool simplicity on the table itself. It's a space that has a sexy buzz, a happy medium between the corporate sangfroid of Bentley and the Tinder-Grindr Martini blender of Monopole.
And then there's the service. The chaps in the kitchen might complain, as Brent Savage joked, that going vego has essentially kicked them all down to the garnish station, but it's the front of house team that really has to sell the stuff. And there's no greater champion for Yellow's charms than its young manager, Brooke Adey, as upright and engaging a waiter as you're likely to meet in the city of Sydney. The menu is large and complex, the wine list full of twists and turns, but Adey knows them back to front, and seems to take no small amount of pride and pleasure in guiding her guests through their treasures.
Yellow turning green is a bold move, but potentially a smart one. Coming from two of the smartest operators in town, and backed by a team of extremely keen young professionals in the kitchen and on the floor, it now has a more serious point of difference, a stronger identity of its own, with which it may distinguish itself in the face of the vigour of big Bentley and the dashing Monopole. The food is a work in progress thus far, but interestingly so, and with a glass of (excellent) wine in hand, following its evolution is going to be one of the pleasures of dining in Sydney in 2016. These are greens to envy.