Pub dining in Paddington hasn't historically been what you might call a slouch. The well-heeled Sydney suburb, along with neighbouring Woollahra, has been home to some of the best-regarded pub eats in the country going back decades. But the meeting at The Paddington of an agile mind, in the form of former Momofuku Seiobo head chef Ben Greeno, and serious hospitality muscle, in the form of Justin Hemmes and his Merivale Group, seems set to raise the stakes. British-born Greeno, a graduate of the kitchens at Sat Bains in the UK and Noma in Copenhagen, led Momofuku Seiobo to win three stars and take out Restaurant of the Year at the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards in 2013, so expectations about his next chapter are not low, despite the very different character of the venue. The 240-seat pub that's his new home is set to open its doors on 24 November, and Greeno is keen to talk us through it.
He has written a menu that walks the line between comfort and adventure with unusual elegance. It's a document that ought to cater to the leafy East's lovers of clean eating (they'll be having the spelt, roast cabbage, kombu and prawns, followed by the whole fish stuffed with olives, lemon and thyme, then the elderflower jelly with raspberry sorbet) just as readily as it pleases the flavour-raiders and drinkers in search of classy ballast (smoked trout and duck egg on an English muffin, perhaps, or the crab on toast).
Or - and this is the really good bit - just what could well be the best chicken and chips in town. Greeno has brought in three Rotisol rôtisseries from France, and is set up to do birds (brined free-range Bannockburn number 11s) by the score. "It's a nice-sized chicken to eat. You want to eat it and you want to finish it."
The brief changed as it went along, Greeno says. Initially it was very pub-focused, if not quite actually ploughman's lunch territory ("though we did have devilled eggs at one stage"). Now it's more "do what you like, and just make it nice and have some fun".
Press him for his picks of the menu, and Greeno says the chicken is a must, naturally. "And the parmesan custard [with sprouted pulses, peas and Basque pepper] is a really nice one. And the spelt with the roasted kombu [and roast cabbage and prawns]." And for dessert? "The elderflower jelly is quite surprising, I think. When do you get a bowl of jelly in Sydney?" he says. "And it's gotta have just the right wobble, if you read the St John cookbook, so we've been working on the wobble."
It's the sort of set-up where a person could eat more than once in the same month. "Hopefully more than once a week," says Greeno. "It's not formal in any way. It's very much like somewhere you can go, have some drinks, have some food and have a good time." It's arranged so that it works as well just for drinks as it does dinner. "You can grab the menu, order some artichokes, some chicken croquettes, sit here and have two pints and leave happy. There's a good mix."
And why a chicken shop on the side? "Justin gave us four metres and said, 'what do you want to do with this?' and it just made sense to do a chicken shop. We'd already committed to the idea of doing rôtisserie chicken. That was part of it from right at the beginning - everybody's dream final meal is a roast chicken, isn't it?" Half or a whole chicken, fries and a classic green salad - no fuss, no muss. "And lots of sh-- cooking in chicken fat."
This being a pub, there's also booze and plenty of it. Beer-wise, it's very tame by 2015 standards, with the likes of Heineken, Stella and Hahn Super Dry on tap alongside Coopers Pale, James Squire the Swindler Summer Ale and Little Creatures. You'll pay $7.80 for a draft New and $9 for Coronas.
The wine side of things, though, very clearly bears the imprimatur of Merivale Master Sommelier Franck Moreau. "Franck has done a really good list," says Greeno. "When I saw it, I said to myself, this is a really f--king good list. He's all right, Franck."
Rosé by the glass, a Domaine Viret southern Rhône, will be poured from magnums, and there's more than a sprinkling of the cool and unusual among the quaffers and crowd-pleasers of the larger list. You want Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage, Frederick Stevenson grenache and Austrian sauv blanc, you got it.
"We had a meeting just two weeks after I'd started and he asked what the food was going to be like. I said light and flavourful, with plenty of roasted flavours. He said, 'right, okay', and came back with a list that just nailed it. Really, really good. Adrian [Filiuta], who's at Felix now, will be looking after it."
Greeno says there's potential, too, for the menu to grow and evolve rapidly. "There were those stories about how Momofuku Ssäm Bar [in Manhattan], back when they first started, would turn into this incredible restaurant after hours where they were doing sweetbreads and brain and tongue and big steaks, so I'm thinking, why can't we do something like that? We're licensed late, so at one o'clock in the morning, instead of going to Golden Century, come here now and eat an amazing big steak or whatever we feel like cooking."
For a chef known for the sort of glass-half-empty outlook that made his dourest fellow northerners seem like Pollyannas by comparison, Greeno seems genuinely fired up by this new chapter in his Australian cooking career.
"My job has moved from being the head chef in a 40-seat restaurant to being executive chef for three restaurants and a bar. I needed a new challenge, and I'm really excited about it. A bit nervous, but if you weren't nervous you'd be a f--king idiot. But mostly excited. It's going to be a nice and relaxed and fun restaurant. Come down and have a good time."
The Paddington menu
Baguette, whipped butter, nasturtium
Grilled cucumber, black pepper
Roast chicken croquette
Kingfish, redcurrant, witlof
Goat curd, herb oil, sourdough
Sprouted pulses, peas, parmesan custard, Basque pepper
Octopus, potato, confit tomato, black olives
Chicken offal, manoush, eggplant
Crab on toast, herb salad
Leeks, brown butter, clams, watercress
Grilled bottle squid, XO
Spelt, roast cabbage, kombu, prawns
Smoked trout, English muffin, duck egg
Roast chicken (half or whole), French fries
Lamb rump, red pepper, almonds
Beef rump, artichokes, pickled mustard seeds, watercress
Whose fish stuffed with olives, lemon and thyme
Celeriac, pickled walnut, chicken juices
Cos, radish, buttermilk, poppy seeds
Rôtisserie carrots, pumpkin seeds,
Roasted Otway Gold potato
Jerusalem artichoke, Greek yoghurt
Elderflower jelly, raspberry sorbet
Salted-caramel chocolate mousse
Pistachio cake, cherries