One very curious consequence of the pandemic has been the rise of a phenomenon known as ‘dopamine dressing’, wherein people don vivid colours and vibrant patterns to make themselves feel pleasure and glee. If one Sydney restaurant among the blizzard of new openings has emerged from the wake of Covid-19 more gussied-up than the others, more eager to elicit the ecstasy that comes with dining out, it’s Ursula’s Paddington.
Set foot in the regal Paddington terrace that used to house both Guillaume and Darcy’s, and you’ll be met with Melbourne designer Brahman Perera’s whimsical pastiche of warm butterscotch tones and vibrant blues, cushy carpeting, glowing Maison Balzac glassware and sculpted Clementine Maconachie wall lights that look like origami folded by Frank Gehry. Spark joy the space certainly does, and so, too, should the guy doing the cooking – one of the country’s most well-respected and likeable chefs, Phil Wood.
Before skipping town to commandeer the culinary program at Pt. Leo Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, Wood manned the pans under Neil Perry in Sydney for the best part of a decade, as the executive chef at Rockpool and its short-lived successor, Eleven Bridge. In those kitchens, he melded Asian flavours, top-drawer Australian produce and high-wire French technique with an often extraordinary degree of finesse. In this one, where he’s playing the chef-owner role for the first time (along with partner in business and life, Lis Davies), the motifs are not dissimilar, but the end results are far less tightly wound.
Exhibit A: the mussel schnitzel – a piping hot, panko-crumbed mollusc and potato patty not much larger than a Macca’s hash brown, served with a herby tangle of shredded iceberg lettuce and perfectly emulsified Marie Rose sauce. It’s a fun entrée that’s indicative of what’s to come, much of which casts an eye on the past for inspiration. But where some chefs use nostalgia as an excuse to indulge in irony or irreverence, Wood’s approach is more endearing and respectful.
Why not pull the Keen’s Curry out from the back of the cupboard, he asks, and use it in a vinaigrette to sharpen an impeccably roasted snapper fillet buried under a rubble of toasted almond slivers, diced carrots and green beans? Why not just resurrect peach Melba, he argues, but remodel it by incorporating a creamy raspberry syllabub and cranking up the volume of the vanilla in the ice cream? The decision, meanwhile, to cash in on the cacio e pepe craze by serving a side of asparagus in a lagoon of runny pecorino and pepper sauce is a questionable one. Thankfully, there’s cashmere-soft (and dairy-free!) brioche rolls on hand to do the mopping.
Real crescendos come with the dishes that lean more heavily on Asian ingredients. There is a beef carpaccio painted in a roasted tomato and chilli dressing that mirrors the shades of the room and practically vibrates with lemongrass, makrut lime and Thai basil, magnified by a scatter of parmesan. A scrummage of spring onions, shiso and nashi pear, meanwhile, brings Korean sensibility to a roasted pork chop so juicy that sauce almost seems unnecessary – until you swipe it through a glossy crimson puddle of rapturously spicy-sweet gochujang.
Certain parts of the equation – the menu’s three-course format; the wine list’s classic tilt; the discreet style of service – are more rooted in fine-dining convention than others. That can sometimes make you wonder whether the experience might benefit from more engagement at the table or turning the Bee Gees and Rodriguez up a little. Still, it all weaves together in a contemporary and charming way, with a smart casual, neighbourhood spirit that will surprise people who anticipated Ursula’s to be a big-ticket destination diner.
More and more, we’re seeing chefs branching out on their own, opening restaurants they’d like to sit in, working hours they’d like to work, serving food they’d like to eat. It’s a welcome change of pace and a logical one. When talented people commit their lives to taking care of others and also take care of themselves, the outcome can only ever be good.