[CLOSED] Giving British cuisine a better name, one ham hock at a time
[CLOSED] British food doesn’t always get the best rap. Burdened by too many years of grandma’s dry-as-a-bone roast beefs and the fear that kidneys may be lurking in the gravy, Australia has learnt to be fearful of the motherland’s contribution to its cuisine. But a trio of new Sydney eateries is riding the crest of a full-blown culinary wave that might leave you rethinking everything you thought you knew about eating like an Englishman.
Luckily, that doesn’t mean heading out to the fields and shooting grouse for tea, because English-born chef Ben Allcock is doing all the hard work for you at Downstairs, a new British restaurant in the heart of Darlinghurst. Situated on the ground floor, below the Hazy Rose, the interior is dotted with the usual British memorabilia – stuff like David Bowie posters and Sex Pistols album covers.
Try and nab a seat in one of the central wooden booths. You’ll feel like you’re in an old British pub, but with more privacy and a higher rad factor. The warm service gives it that convivial vibe, and the dark lighting means you can sing along to the Britpop play list without necessarily being caught in the act. There’s a solid selection of beer and ciders, including a treacle toffee-like stout by Yorkshire’s Samuel Smith. Looking for a crowd pleaser? Order a bottle of Old Speckled Hen ale – it’s malty and refreshing, and goes with pretty much anything.
During our visit, they surprise us with mini lamb pies at the table as a pre-dinner treat. A bright yellow blob crowning their tops turns out not to be hot English but milder American mustard instead. It isn’t very traditional but, hey ho! Everyone loves a pie.
Order the smoked ham hock. It will help you better understand what British cuisine is actually all about: produce-driven food that heats you from the inside. Tender hunks of full-flavoured pork are scattered over peas cooked ‘à la Française’ – that is, with tonnes of butter, lettuce and stock. It’s somewhere between a stew and a soup, with dashes of lemon juice for requisite sourness and jumbo croutons that soak up the buttery, smoky broth below yet stay crispy on the top. If you’re having a bad day, come here and order this, and all will be well in your world. It’s unbelievably comforting.
The scallops with cauliflower cream are a British classic, the shellfish cooked perfectly (seared and sticky on the outside, tender and melting within) and the cream smooth and pleasingly earthy. Kedgeree is a dish beloved in the UK – a relic leftover from the British Raj, it’s a pilaf of sorts cooked with smoked haddock, eggs and curry powder – but the kedgeree croquettes served with the scallops here are more crisp-coating than ricey-goodness. We’d prefer a little pile of the classic stuff served alongside, or on its own for that matter. But the grapes on the plate are a bit odd, and should quietly make their way to the dessert corner of the menu.
A special of house-made black pudding nicely exemplifies what this traditional blood sausage can be when it’s made with care: buttery, rich and nubbly. The rest of the plate – poached egg alongside bubble and squeak – is underwhelming. Order the black pudding on its own.
The well-cooked sirloin steak is full of flavour and served with crumbed marrow and good, fat chips. No self-respecting Brit would eat beef without cauliflower cheese, though here it’s an optional side. Their version could do with more cheese and less fancy embellishment, which in this case translates to hazelnut crumbs. Go to the side of kale with Brussels sprouts – it’s beautifully simple: just buttery, lightly cooked veggies that retain their crunch and vigour. It’s the perfect sideshow to the richer mains.
Skip the chocolate pudding for dessert – it’s really just warm cake – and try the vanilla and honeycomb parfait instead. It’s light, creamy frozen custard with crunchy honeycomb, fresh strawberries, mint and Pimm’s jelly. It serves to get a bit of everything in one mouthful – it all blends brilliantly, with a taste that’s like British summer on a plate.
We like Downstairs. The food isn't life-changing, but it's pared back and solid. And some dishes – the ham hock! The ham hock! – are really rather excellent. When the colder months set in, you need a place serving food that will warm the cockles. Downstairs might just be the place to do it.
83 Stanley St
|Opening hours:||Tue-Sat 5-10.30pm; Sat 10am-3pm; Sun noon-late|