One of the most-watched properties in restaurant land right now is the former Café Pacifico site on Riley Street in East Sydney. The scrutiny is largely because it's to be the location for former Marque head chef Pasi Petänen's first solo venture, and it's given an extra twist with the news that it's strictly on a limited-time basis, with the building due to be knocked down, along with the rest of the block, next year to make way for apartments. Café Paci, a pop-up of sorts, should be open in early August.
We called Finnish-born Petänen, the man Marque chef Mark Best has dubbed "the best thing to come out of Finland since Nokia rubber boots", to get the lowdown.
Gourmet Traveller What's the deal with Pacifico, Pasi? They're knocking the building down, right?
Pasi Petänen Yes, so the landlord's applied for a DA to knock down the whole block and build units. Phil [Bayly, of Café Pacifico], the old operator, left at the end of May, and the landlord bought all the tables and chairs and kitchen equipment and he's going to give it to us for a year. We're going to paint it and see if we can get rid of the smell of tequila from here.
GT That smell is in deep; those Pacifico guys had been there for some time.
PP It is and you can't get rid of it and I don't know what to do with it. We've only been here for four days and still when I go home I can smell it.
GT So, once you've got rid of the smell of tequila, what will you be doing on the site?
PP It'll be a set menu, sort of like in Europe, like [Paris restaurants] Chateaubriand and Septime, similar style - casual, fun, good food, affordable, with a set menu that changes quickly, or as quickly as we can. We'll have a good selection of wine by the glass and try to recommend them with the food rather than matching the whole thing.
GT That sounds reasonable.
PP Yeah, so hopefully it works and hopefully we open at the end of July or early in August. The painters have already delayed us by a week, so we'll see.
GT Just dinners, presumably? It's not really a lunch neighbourhood.
PP Just dinners five days a week, closed Sunday and Monday. Hopefully everyone works every day, which is much more practical with the rostering and staffing.
GT Well, that sounds good.
PP Yeah. It'll be good. It's a little more affordable, more approachable and a fun atmosphere. I think it's less pressure and it's only temporary, so there's not much point in pouring too much money into the site.
GT Well, it's not like you're trying to create a restaurant that lasts the ages.
PP No, that's it. We'll just try to last 12 months and to get this campaign up and running and to get rid of the echo and the tequila.
GT Is the name going to be pronounced Paci as in Pacifico, or Paci like it's Italian?
PP "Pasi" like my name. I've been called everything from Pussy to Pus-Bucket since I've been in this country. Bloody Aussies.
GT Will you be serving tequila?
PP Well, I think we have to. We're already planning a taco, a Finnish taco, so I think we have to get tequila on as well just to respect the heritage and history of the site. That might not help with the smell, though.
GT What are you thinking in terms of the food?
PP Well, you know what the food is like down at Marque. It'll be sort of similar, quite inventive and very seasonal, and we'll try to change it as often as possible, but really just inventive, fun and nothing too try-hard. Like Marque, we'll work with the ingredients without overdoing it. And I've got some funny things where I've tried to play with the wording of the dishes.
GT Have you got any dishes in mind so far?
PP Nothing's set in stone yet, and I want to keep it spontaneous, but for the first menu I'm thinking snacks like the rye taco, a potato tart with chicken salt and buckwheat with dill and oyster, and maybe some potato bread with cultured butter and smoked tallow, and then things like Murray cod with lardo and juniper or a tartare of milk-fed lamb with our version of togarashi. For dessert, rye, liquorice and milk and malt, banana and parsley, and then petits fours of corn and butter, pork and fennel.
GT What's that going to cost, roughly?
PP It'll be around $85 for the set menu: snacks, five courses and petits fours.
GT Do you have a set end-date already?
PP Our lease runs out on 5 July 2014, but after that we've got an option for six months. Once that six months runs out all the leases in the building run out.
GT You need a big counter on the wall that reads "200 days left".
PP I know, I've been told that one already. I've been told it, but I thought it would be corny.
GT You can't go wrong going too corny in this town.
PP Oh, good. I have a sauna idea for the bathroom, then. We'll see.
GT How many does the room seat?
PP Roughly 60 altogether. The kitchen is massive and it will cope. So at the moment it's just the 55 chairs plus the eight bar chairs.
GT Well, that'll be a very interesting shift after Marque.
PP Oh, yeah, big time. Well, the numbers will be the same and the same pace as we did Friday lunches at Marque, which is sort of four or five courses with a set menu.
GT We can't wait. Hurry up and get open.
Café Paci, 95 Riley St, Darlinghurst, NSW, 02 9368 7000; opening 8 August.