Disclaimer: Good-times-only Italian diner Pellegrino 2000 is one of our favourite restaurants in Sydney. Chefs and owners Dan Pepperell and Mikey Clift, alongside sommelier Andy Tyson, know how to create a rocking venue with on-point flavours and a feel-good vibe (the fact that it’s impossible to get a booking unless it's a Tuesday at 5pm is testament to that). So, when news broke earlier this year that the trio were opening a third Sydney restaurant – a New York-style steak house slinging retro classics – joining Pellegrino 2000 and their French baby, Bistrot 916 – we were thrilled, hopeful, and perhaps a little biased. Thankfully, it’s turned out to be a clam dunk.
We head to Clam Bar – which has taken over the former Bridge Room space in Sydney’s CBD – mid-week and hungry. The outside doesn’t give much away except for tinted glass and silver doors with the words Clam Bar in giant letters. It looks grand and important.
If the outside city is grey, then the inside of Clam Bar is light years away from that. Herringbone timber flooring and Art Deco chandeliers the colour of toffee add sophistication; while Murano clam-shaped lights are a nice nod to the creatures of the sea. Speaking of the ocean, an illuminated sea life painting by artist Laura Jones hangs on the wall, alongside a giant fish. At the back, vintage posters of Ortiz anchovies and Rosella tomato sauce bring character above chocolate-coloured seating. It does verge into 50 shades of brown territory, even with the pops of verdant palms and red and white cartoon-like drawings, but it’s a classy, cosy and slick space, and we’d like one Negroni, please.
Clam Bar is inspired by the great steakhouses of New York – Pepperell, Clift and Tyson went there on a research trip before opening this spot. So yes, prime-aged steaks are on the menu, including a New York strip, a rib-eye and a porterhouse. Plus, there’s a Barnsley lamb chop. But it’s the other stuff that excites us more.
The raw bar menu is reminiscent of a retro dinner party, with oysters Rockefeller and crudites and egg salad. We kick things off with oysters metropole, served with nuoc cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce) and lemongrass chipolatas. Yes, oysters and tiny sausages. The Sydney rock oysters are creamy and briney. The cold mollusc is juxtaposed with the hot, glistening chipolata, and the punchy dressing – vibrant from coriander and lime – adds acid and freshness and takes us back to our recent trip to Hoi An.
Meaty and tender poached scarlett red tiger prawns are served on ice with their heads alongside a duo of sauces. A cocktail sauce comes with a whack of peppery horseradish, though we prefer the creamy and spiced Old Bay mayo. We pair this with a glass of dry sparkling Burgundy, which is ever so slightly pink in colour, and absolutely sublime.
Clam Bar’s empanada is stuffed with zucchini flower and comes with a gooseberry hot sauce. The pastry is golden, flakey and buttery, with specks of sea salt, and garlic and onion add flavour to the filling. A fruity and vinegary hot sauce takes the snack to the next level (though, perhaps it’s not as game changing as Mr Niland’s empanada at Petermen, and the ones we’ve had on the streets of Buenos Aires.)
We’re at Clam Bar, so spaghetti with clams is a must. The al dente strands are coated in a luscious umami-rich butter and garlic sauce, spiked with white wine, chilli and parsley, and tossed with plump clams. The seasoning is on point, just like Pellegrino’s pasta dishes, and we would keep on eating but a whopping burger is placed down by one of the waiters (who by the way, are all wearing suave uniforms the colour of butter and look 11/10).
We’d heard the rumours that Clam Bar is pumping out Sydney’s best burger, which is a huge call. And at $35 you’d want it to be pretty bloody good. It is. The 250g grass-fed patty is pretty and blushing pink, fatty and juicy, with perfectly melted American cheese, topped with a sharp mustard sauce and onion. Though our thick cut bacon – served on top of the sesame bun with a slice of pickle and stabbed with a knife – was about two inches shorter than photos we’d seen, so we would like more bacon next time, please.
There are more sides than you can poke a stick at – corn and gruyere gratin; macaroni alla vodka; beef fat potatoes; and grilled mixed brassicas, to name a few – and they’re all well-priced at $16 each, but we’re full and happy. Though we’ll be back for the Clam Bar to try the cheesecake.
Just like McCain, it seems the trio have done it again at Clam Bar, creating a space with delicious food, a space that evokes a warmth, and one that you want to return to. Even if it’s on a Tuesday at 5pm.