Anton Forte and Jason Scott like to go their own way. And for this pair of Sydney hospitality professionals, it has paid off. Starting with the runaway success of their Darlinghurst basement dive, Shady Pines, which they opened in early 2010, they went on to open the equally well-received Baxter Inn and Frankie's Pizza, and have gone on to inspire a score of imitators nationwide. Now, in opening their first restaurant, in the Sydney CBD, the founders of the Swillhouse group are taking a gamble and stepping outside their comfort zone. Will Restaurant Hubert put a current through the Sydney dining scene the same way their bars electrified the drinks world?
Scott and Forte have crafted a restaurant so restauranty it's almost a parody of restaurant craft. Follow the stairs down to what was once the Celestial Chinese Restaurant on Bligh Street (yes, another subterranean location) and you find yourself in a sepia-tinged collection of rooms lined with timber and leather, banquettes and bars, dimly lit with tiny fringed lamps and hung with framed posters of French booze. It even has a stage. "We want fat businessmen drinking Burgundy and shiraz out of beautiful glassware with Frank Sinatra crooning over the speakers," says Forte. "We want glamorous ladies drinking icy-cold Martinis. We want cool kids with glasses peering off into their mineral water."
But the menu is no joke; nor is the wine list. Bringing edge to the food is star recruit Daniel Pepperell; they're hoping he can do for bistro what he did for trattoria food at 10 William St, giving the classics just enough backspin to turn heads as they come out of the kitchen. As the dishes he shares here may indicate, Pepperell is unafraid of embracing the glimmering aspic of tradition on one hand while playfully courting irreverence on the other, dosing the gratin with kimchi and giving shiitakes the à la Grecque treatment. On the wine front they've got Andy Tyson, a graduate of Monopole, the Wine Library and Buzo, aided and abetted by mmanager, Anthony Moore, also late of Monopole.
"Initially we wanted a restaurant where we could have a crème brûlée and a schnitzel on the same menu," says Scott. But the concept tightened in focus along the way. "It evolved into more of a big-night-out restaurant than just a little cosy wine bar."
And the Swillhouse team likes a big night out. Before they were bar czars, Scott clocked time on the floor as a waiter and sommelier at Ivy, North Bondi Italian Food and Foveaux, while Victorian-born Forte has a CV that includes Becco, The Melbourne Supper Club, Lotus and The Victoria Room, where the pair met.
"We've always loved restaurants, and dining out has always been something we've been passionate about," says Forte. "It was working in restaurants where we developed the style that has become Swillhouse's signature - we want rigid service standards but we want them delivered by people who are really cool in a place that has plenty of buzz. That's what we're about and we want to see if we can test our mettle and do that in a restaurant of our own."
Recipes by Restaurant Hubert:
Restaurant Hubert, basement, 15 Bligh St, Sydney, NSW, restauranthubert.com