The explosive transformation of Smith Street from Dollar Shop Alley to boulevard of tastiness (there are 13 new eat and drinkeries) is the kind of revolution we’ll hoist a flag for.
Where Cavallero once stood (RIP, breakfast Camparis) you’ll now find Saint Crispin: a sharp mod-Oz restaurant where gun chefs Joe Grbac (ex-Press Club) and Scott Pickett of the Estelle are staging a small plate coup and confidently plating texturally adventurous two- or three-course lunches and dinners. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome back your old friends entrée, main and dessert.
They haven’t done much too much to alter the bones of the room – it’s still white, woody and warmly lit, dominated by the beautiful long bar that runs down one side with a run of bareback tables opposite. What they have injected is some very polished service, sharp cocktails and tunes from the Temptations to keep time.
As with the Estelle, the menu is extremely technique-driven. Your appetisers are sour hibiscus marshmallows and salty black olive macarons because why the hell not? A snack of crackling is an avalanche of crunchy sumac-dusted pork clouds that snap and fizz like giant prawn crackers. It’s a little wacky without going the whole molecular whizbangery hog. You’re in the skilled and sensible hands of chefs who know the difference between fun and fussy dishes.
How about some black fungus and Parmesan jelly? A just-set egg nests in a raggedy mushroom sponge a la microwave – a fluff maximising trick nabbed from Ferran Adria’s El Bulli circa the mid thousands or thereabouts – propped up by the cloud ear mushrooms and enveloped in a cheesy mascarpone blanket. The firm jelly cubes and a scatter of puffed rice add subtle smoke and crunch. It works.
They’ve got a great handle on textures. A miso-braised veal cheek is sticky and nicely salty against sweet jus, thick macaroni tubes and thin shavings of blanched broccoli with a toasty crumble of the fried broccoli buds.
Sous vide salmon is just-cooked, slightly sweet from a mirin and olive oil marinade, and works well with the crunch and chew of a giant squid ink cracker and poached calamari, cut like fettuccine for running through rouille – a garlic, oil, saffron emulsion that’s a bit like an aioli.
What we love about this restaurant is that the whole crew from kitchen to floor exudes enough confidence to make you relax. Sommelier Christian Burge is cracking jokes and goading groups into bottles of buttery white godellos from northern Spain and the crowd doesn’t try to resist.
It’s $50, $60 or $120 for two or three courses or an all out degustation. That’s not casual Wednesday territory for most – especially if you factor in the $18-a-glass Nebbiolo they’re good at talking you into. But Smith Street has casual. What it needs is smart cooking, polished service and fun without excessive formality. That’s what you get at Saint Crispin. Bless its delicious soul.