For years the Sydney dining scene has been richer for having Ester. The bold and punchy flavours that Mat Lindsey once produced with the backing of a military-like kitchen crew set the bar for fine diners that dared to play with fire, championed creative execution of vegetable and seafood dishes, and proudly presented a wine list that leaned heavily into the natural style. So after all these years, we wanted to find out how this Chippendale stalwart is holding up.
The snack game has long been the pull for diners, from the Mum’s birthday celebrations to post-shift hospitality workers grabbing a wine and small bites, and everyone in between.
Those laurels remain rested on, and deservedly so. These days the fermented potato bread with caviar and kefir cream remains top of mind, while newer additions of smoked bluefin tuna with bone marrow butter and anchovies draped over a cronut of sorts hits all the flavour marks. The blood sausage sanga has been around since time immemorial and for good reason; the Christmas-spiced fingers of meat, paired with sweet caramelised onions and a soft white bao, are indescribably delicious on the flavour front. However, the steamed bread, if not carefully rationed, can become a gluey, cloying choking hazard that you’ll be sucking from your teeth around a table rendered silent for a good few minutes. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, though with three layers of sweetness and a structurally unsound foundation, perhaps it is time for an evolution.
The understated pickled cucumber gives away little on paper but is visually a stunner, its beauty on par with its extraordinary deliciousness: wafer-thin slices of whole pickles arranged in crescents around a pool of macadamia cream, kombu dressing bringing a hint of oceanic brine. It provides the right amount of acid to cut through the rich bluefin tuna and that saccharine-sweet sanga and we will continue to order it as long as it is on the menu. After all, it’s important to eat your vegetables.
Personable and knowledgeable staff sing high praises of the Ester salad, which at $24 we assumed would cure cancer and give financial advice, so it is ordered and arrived at lightning speed alongside a main of a dry-aged Berkshire pork chop.
A tossed combination of coriander, parsley, horseradish leaves and assorted mesclun comes swimming in a pool of verdant green dressing which sorely needs seasoning and that hit of acid required of a salad. The horseradish leaves provide a kick of heat, but overall, the tangle of leaves fall flat for us and we leave them largely untouched.
Now onto the main event. An $80 pork chop. It’s a sizable beast and great for sharing, as is the design of all Ester dishes, and the price can be forgiven when you take into account the time and energy it takes to correctly age a piece of heritage-breed meat. The puddle of ground spice dressing is delicious, all clove and anise with some cinnamon and sumac for zest. We have to wonder, however, how it benefits the chop it adorns. We feel the flavour of the meat is masked entirely, which is unfortunate because under all that we would love to believe that the dense layer of fat – which is scantily rendered and deprived of the opportunity to shine in all its unctuous glory – in tandem with some salt and mustard would have done the trick.
As one must, we save room for dessert. The choice is between golden kiwi sorbet, bread-and-butter ice cream, chocolate fudge tart with burnt marshmallow, or truffle crêpe brûlée. We opt for the chocolate number. You know when you get a roll of cookie dough and take the cookies out of the oven too early, then eat them too early because you’re excited about cookies? Then you say “that’s yummy” and move on with your life? That’s almost exactly what this chocolate tart elicits. To our palate, it is monotone, overly sweet, and even the touch of bitterness from the burnt marshmallow cap is not enough to provide any real depth of flavour. We wanted to love this. We wanted to love everything. Heartbreaking.
Given the rich legacy of this Chippendale favourite, which has consistently been recognised as a home of excellence (it even won our 2017 Time Out restaurant of the year), we’re left asking the question “what happened?” Where once, bold flavours like liquorice and chocolate tarts, blackened cauliflower heads and deep seabed flavours were drawn out of the shells of king prawns by the blistering heat of the wood-burning oven, we now find an underwhelming heartache. The bones are still there, but the bravery seems to have quavered with age. Unsure footing from the kitchen is carried by a gorgeous space, professional and fun waitstaff, and one of the best wine lists you’ll find in town. Is it enough? Here’s hoping.