Monday, May 04, 2015

Dinner @ Pinbone, Woollahra

On my first visit to Sydney, I went to all the top restaurants: Quay, Tetsuya, Sepia, Marque, Bécasse.  Some were better than others, but none were the calibre of places I regularly dine at in San Francisco, and all were far pricier.  On our next visit, we tried a few more places that were supposed to be amazing.   Again we were disappointed.  We quickly learned that Sydney is just not the place to go fine dining, particularly when you are accustomed to Bay Area standards.

That isn't to say that all is doomed when it comes to dining in Sydney.  On this trip, we focused on what Sydney does well: cafes for brunch. Thai restaurants.  Bars with decent food.  Asian desserts.  Gelato.  We mostly avoided any menus that sounded like what we'd get at home.

Yet, during my research, I kept seeing rave reviews for a place called Pinbone, all the way in Woollahra, a bit far from where I was staying and working.  I didn't really see a reason to venture all the way there, particularly for that style of food, given past experience.  But so many people loved it.  It also didn't seem necessarily as formal as the fancier places we had ventured to.  Maybe there was hope?

Thus, on our second-to-last night in Sydney, Ojan, myself, and one co-worker other finally went to Pinbone.  The others traveling with us deemed it too far and choose to stick nearby the hotels.  Spoiler: they all missed out.  Big time.  This was the best meal of the trip, no question.  I'm pretty sure it was the best meal I had in Sydney, ever.

I wished we had visited Pinbone sooner, as I certainly would have returned at least one more time for dinner.  (I did in fact return, the very next night, for brunch, since they weren't open for dinner on Sunday.  The delivered the best brunch of the trip as well!)  If I were a local, Pinbone would be my goto place, no question.  Suitable for a fancy night out, or even a casual dinner, although, I don't think you can just walk in most nights, as bookings seem necessary.

Dinner is served in two seatings, 6pm or 8:30pm, and we opted for the 6pm, which might be slightly early for some, but is actually the schedule we are normally on in San Francisco, so it suited us fine.

So, what makes Pinbone so good?  Simple: they just get everything right.  They nail every aspect of the dining experience.  Most importantly, it feels comfortable.  No, this is not Michelin star dining, but quite honestly, the food is at that calibre, except done in a setting that puts you perfectly at ease.

The staff were attentive, but not too formal.  We were never left wanting anything.  The ambiance was warm and inviting.  It felt like a rustic cafe, yet, as we'd discover, the food was not anything like you'd get in a simple cafe.

The kitchen clearly knows what they are doing.  The ingredients used are high quality, the food is well prepared, and the dishes expertly crafted.  The flavors and textures are just completely dialed in, highly refined.  They take some risks with interesting combinations and techniques, and they pay off, honing in on a magical combination of smoky, salty, and umami flavors.  The plating is elaborate, and resembles the artistic plating you see at far fancier venues.  Speaking of artwork, the dishware is all custom pottery, made by local artisans.  Nearly every dish is served on a different style of plate, and all are rustic in appearance.

The staff also just really seemed to care, again, a bit different than we were used to in Sydney.  Service in Sydney generally seems to be lacking, which we always attributed to the lack of tipping culture.  But here, they cared.  I asked for a white wine suggestion, and was given a small pour of the suggested wine.  When I didn't like it, the server came back with a large selection of wines, happy to pour me a taste of each so I could find the one I liked.  It wasn't that the staff weren't busy.  Never once did I see anyone just standing around, they were in constant motion, running up and down the stairs, balancing an impressive number of dishes at a time.  They left (complimentary!) sparkling water in jugs on the table, and both our glasses and the jugs themselves, were constantly refilled.  Our needs were taken care of, before we even realized it.

Speaking of drinks, Ojan asked for a mocktail.  His ask was that it be not too sweet, and somewhat tart.  This is what he asked for most placee, and most of the time, he still wound up with a glass of sweet fruit juice.  But not at Pinbone!  They produced probably the best mocktail he had on the whole trip, made with fresh lemon, lime, and orange juice for tartness, muddled with cucumber for freshness.  Tart and refreshing, and, gasp, not too sweet.  Really unique and he quite enjoyed it.

Interior

Downstairs.
We were seated downstairs, a small area with only 3 tables and a few bar stools. The bar, and the larger table, were not occupied, so there was only one other table of 3 seated in this area, resulting in a really intimate setting.  I'm glad we were seated down there!  Doesn't it even look like someone's home?  So cozy.

The kitchen is also on this floor, so we got to see each and every dish as it came out of the kitchen.  Everything was droolworthy.  As I watched dishes go by, I made a mental note of all the ones I wanted for my next visit ... if only I were staying in town longer!
Stairway to Main Dining Room.
Everyone else was seated upstairs.  The waitstaff were impressive in their running up and down the stairs, hands full, all night long.  I'd love to throw a Fitbit on them for a night to see how many sets of stairs they climbed.

Snacks

Another unique aspect of Pinbone is the menu.  It is a place you are supposed to come with friends, share a bunch of dishes, relax, and enjoy yourself.

The menu opens with "snacks", pieces priced and served individually, so everyone can pick whichever items they want.  I love this format, as we weren't stuck ordering an awkward number of anything; no need to cut items in half, or double up on something when we just wanted one.  I really wish more places used this model.
Snack Menu.
The "snacks" are all quite playful dishes, which set a fun tone for the meal.  For example, one, which we didn't order, is their spin on fairy bread (an Australian snack served at kid's parties, normally consisting of a slice of white bread, spread with butter, and topped with sprinkles), except that they replace the butter with mascarpone and the hundreds and thousands with salmon roe.  It was on my list for sure, but it didn't make the cut on this first visit.  Next time.

They also offer what has to be the best valued tasting menu I've ever seen, either $65/pp for a "small" selection or $85/pp for "large".  Another time, I'd love to do the tasting menu, and just leave it to the chefs to feed me all the highlights.
Lamb Rib ($5). Cheesy, Smoky, Potato Thing ($4/each). Corn & Miso Gougere ($4/each). 
We started with several of the snacks.  The snacks all arrived very soon after placing our order, indicative of the service we'd receive all night.  The kitchen operated at high efficiency, cranking out dishes rapidly, but we never felt rushed.

First, a lamb rib.  Ojan was the only one who wanted a lamb rib, but that was fine, we could order just one!  It was glazed and coated with crunchy nuts.  I read online afterwards that it was inspired by a Golden Gaytime, a popular ice cream treat, with the bone mimicking the popsicle stick and the crunchy nuts the biscuit coating, but we didn't pick up on that at the time.  Ojan enjoyed it, but said his favorite lamb from the trip was from Watsons Bay Beach Club.

Next, the snack I read many reviews for: a "cheesy, smoky, potato thing".  The name of this alone lets you know that the restaurant wants you to have fun here, and just enjoy it for what it is.  And this, well yes, it is a cheesy, smoky, potato thing,  a crispy potato skin with a puddle of melted cheese inside.  I opted not to have one since for some reason we overdid it on fries, chips, wedges, or other forms of fried potato literally every day on this trip, and I was quite frankly very sick of potatoes.  Of course, I did still one tiny bite of Ojan's.  It was fine, and I appreciated how crispy it was, but I was sick of potatoes.  The guys really liked it though, and kept raving into the night.

The snack I did try was the corn and miso gougere.  How fascinating sounding is this?  It was basically pâte à choux, like you get in a cream puff, stuffed with creamy corn pudding.  No individual corn kernels were present.

The choux pastry was light and airy, the filling warm, creamy, and comforting.  For some reason, I was expecting it to be cheesy, and it wasn't.  I think because most gougeres I've had in my life have been cheesy, but this isn't a bad thing, just, unexpected.  The winning element for me was the miso glaze on top.  I love miso, and the salty flavor really pushed it over the top.  I also loved that it looked even more like a cream puff this way, with the glazed top.  This was a really unique bite, but I'm not sure I'd really want another.  My 4th pick of the savories.

Prices were all good for individual pieces.

Sharing Plates

The rest of the menu is the shared plates, broken into categories roughly based on their size and heaviness.  Since I always want bites of everything, this menu format really appeals to me, I wasn't forced to select just one main dish.
Sharing Plates Menu.
There were a number of smaller, lighter dishes I wanted to try, including grilled octopus, butter poached squid, and grilled salmon belly that looked phenomenal every time I saw it go by.  But, there were only three of us, and we weren't particularly hungry since we had a huge late brunch earlier that afternoon, so, we had to cull our choices.  Oh, and one of the diners was vegetarian.  So, we settled on just a few sharing plates, mostly vegetarian, and I drooled over the others as I saw them enter the room.
Raw Zucchini, Lemon, Pecorino. $12.
For vegetarian dishes, most of the options were the smaller side dishes, so we selected several of them.  Our vegetarian friend really wanted the raw zucchini salad, so even though I had no interest in it, I wanted to let the vegetarian have something exciting that he wanted, so we got it.

The zucchini was raw, shaved thin, and mixed with basil and lemon, topped with pecorino cheese.  Lots of pecorino cheese.  I thought the zucchini was a bit mushy, and this was really not my thing at all, but I did like the saltiness from the cheese on top.  Mine, and everyone else's least favorite savory dish.  That said, our vegetarian friend did like it, but after having the other dishes, he said this was just the least interesting, not that it was bad, just, not nearly as exciting as the others.
Roast Carrot, Macadamia, Greens. $14.
The online menu listed a dish of slow roasted carrots with mussels.  I was eying it from before we arrived at the restaurant, as I read so many amazing reviews of it.  But alas, the dish was no longer on the menu.

I was disheartened, until I saw this vegetarian roast carrot dish on the menu.  Not exactly what I wanted, but since the carrots were the part people raved about from the other dish, I'd still get to have those, and our vegetarian friend could join in.  Of course, not that I knew exactly what to expect from a dish simply called "roast carrot, macadamia, and greens".  For starters, I probably expected to see some macadamia nuts.

The carrots were indeed pretty amazing, slow roasted, and caramelized.  The garnish was an incredible assortment of fresh greens, I don't even know what they all were.  They were all super fresh, beautiful, and quite flavorful.  This was a testament to the amazing things one really can do with fresh produce!  Vegetarian food does not need to be boring.

My favorite part of the dish was the macadamia.  It was there, as a puree, rather than whole crunchy nuts.  It was a bit smoky, a bit nutty, really quite flavorful and fascinating.  I appreciated the creamy texture along with the crisp greens.

This dish captured a lot of what I loved at Pinbone: it was fairly simple ingredients, just carrots, macadamia, and greens, right?  But the presentation was beautiful, and the freshness and lightness were very welcome after several weeks of eating all our meals at restaurants.  My second favorite of the savories, and Ojan's favorite.
Pumpkin, Pepita, Silverbeet. $18.
The final vegetarian dish we picked was another I had read many positive reviews of.  Even omnivores said this was the surprise hit of the night for them, so clearly, we had to get it.

The pumpkin (acorn squash?) was nicely roasted, soft, skin on, which I appreciated.  The silverbeet (chard to us Americans), was fresh, crispy, and pleasantly bitter.  The pepitas added the perfect crunch.  Underneath it all was a puree, I believe also made from pepitas.  Soft, creamy, crunchy, fresh.  All in one.

One diner said the dish reminded him of Thanksgiving.  Overall, it was good, and like the previous dishI really found the texture combinations to be interesting, but it was my 3rd pick of the evening.
Kingfish Wings, Pickled Turnip. $26.
For a non-vegetarian dish, we opted for a more substantial item, kingfish wings.  This was my pick, as it sounded like the most unique of the seafood offerings.  We don't have kingfish in the US, and I haven't eaten many fish wings in general.

The serving was quite large, 3 wings.  The kingfish seemed to have been grilled, as it had a crispy, charred exterior.  I couldn't get over the amazing smoky flavor this technique imparted on the fish.  I even wanted to eat the fins, just to get more of the intense charred flavor.

While the outside had a great crispy exterior, the inside remained moist and tender.  It reminded Ojan and I of hamachi kama from a Japanese restaurant.  Why don't we eat more fish wings and cheeks anyway?  It is where the most tender moist flesh is.

I also really enjoyed the physical act of eating it, sucking the fish off the bones, which I did to maximize my exposure to the smoky flavor.  This is actually generally the opposite of my regular behavior, as I don't tend to like my meat on the bone.

Speaking of flavor, the fish was coated in some kind of glaze, I'm not entirely sure what it was, but it was sweet and salty and totally delicious.  I may or may not have tipped the plate up on its side at the end and just spooned the remaining sauce into my mouth.  Soooo good.

On the side was pickled turnip, which I didn't actually care for, it was too tart and vinegary for me.  I think this was a new accompaniment though, because the online menu listed pommelo instead of turnip, and when I asked our server about the preparation she told me it came with pommelo, and when she brought us the dish, she again said it was pommelo, and there was no mention of the turnips either time.  And there was no pommelo on the plate, which I think that would have worked better, bringing some tartness, but not quite so much acidity as the vinegary pickle.

Anyway, I loved this dish, turnips aside.  The crispiness, the smokiness, the saltiness, the sweetness ... it all just combined perfectly.  My favorite savory dish, hands down.  It made me wish I were hungry enough to add the grilled octopus dish to our order too.  Pinebone's chefs clearly know how to grill things.

This was certainly large enough to be a regular seafood main dish at a traditional restaurant, so the $26 price was incredibly reasonable, lower than most anywhere else we visited.

Dessert

We were all quite full, and could have easily skipped dessert.  It is basically unheard of for dessert loving me to even consider a meal complete without dessert.  But I really was happy and satisfied with the savory food alone.  I know, I rarely say this.  I'd say it happens perhaps twice a year?  And this was one of those times.
Dessert Menu.
But curiosity got the better of me.  If the kitchen produced savory food that good, I really wondered what their desserts would be like.  And, quite honestly, besides the gelato from Messina, desserts in Sydney paled in comparison to what I'm used to, so my sweet tooth was feeling a bit deprived.

Like with the savories, the menu didn't quite reveal what the dishes would be, with options such as "meringue, vanilla cream, fruit".  That sounded like one of my leave favorite Australian desserts, pavlova?  Or, "blueberry granita, pinenut brittle, & white pepper parfait".  White pepper?  Hmm.  But I was drawn in by the "banana and black sticky rice sundae", because I was on a sticky rice kick in Sydney from eating at so many Thai restaurants.

Once I started thinking about a black sticky rice sundae, I had no choice but to order it.  The others were also very full, and didn't want dessert.  But then a special involving blackberries was announced, and our vegetarian friend decided he needed that too.
Decaf Long Black. $4.
To pave the way for desserts, I ordered a decaf long black.  I hoped that taking a few minutes to sip some coffee would somehow allow me to digest a little.  Plus, I always love having a bitter coffee to pair with sweet desserts, although I had a hunch that Pinebone's desserts would be balanced enough on their own.

Pinbone uses The Little Marionette roasters for their coffee, which I was unfamiliar with.  I'm assuming they are local, but I didn't find their beans anywhere else in town.

The coffee was strong and pleasant enough, and I didn't need to add any sweeteners nor milk to make the decaf palatable.  Like many places, they charge an additional $0.50 for decaf, and the price matched most cafes I visited.
Special Dessert: Hazelnut Parfait, Chocolate Sauce, Blackberries.
So, as I said, we were all pretty full.  Ojan claimed that he'd have a single bite of a dessert, no more.  I had the one dessert I was eyeing, and it certainly wasn't this one, as I don't eat chocolate at night, I don't really like hazelnuts, and I loathe blackberries.

But ... our other diner had his heart set on this, so, two desserts it was.  For basically only two people, both of whom were pretty full.

It turns out, that even if you are full, Pinbone will inspire you to find a way to eat more.  While he didn't eat his full share, even Ojan certainly managed more than a few bites.

Anyway, this was a creamy parfait, studded with little chunks of hazelnut for crunch, with chocolate sauce poured over it, adorned with whole candied hazelnuts, finished with blackberries on top.  I tried a few bites, because I couldn't resist, even though no component was one I thought I'd like.

While it wasn't my thing, I was fascinated by the creamy texture and the crunch of the parfait, and I'm sure if you are a Nutella lover, this would have been awesome.  None of us were quite sure what the parfait was made of however, it wasn't ice cream as it didn't melt, but it was thicker than a cream ... fascinating.

Anyway, a good dessert, but it paled in comparison to my pick.
Banana & Black Sticky Rice Sundae. $16.
OMG.  That just about sums this up.  Yes, that is the simple "banana and black sticky rice sundae".  Um, wow.

Sure, the descriptions throughout the entire menu were understated, and didn't quite do the dishes justice.  But this one takes the cake in under-promising and over-delivering.  This was most certainly not just banana and sticky rice!  In fact, where were the banana and sticky rice even hiding in here?

I don't even know where to begin.  Which, incidentally, is also how I felt when it was placed in front of us.  It was huge.  Massive.  Remember how we just wanted a little bite of sweet to finish.  Oops.  Maybe Pinebone should add smaller "dessert snacks" to the menu.

So, let's start with the menu description, which said there should be black sticky rice.  Where was it?  It formed the bottom layer of the dish, underneath all the other ingredients.  It was slightly al dente, which gave a pleasant crunch.  A great textural element, but it was more of a garnish that I was expecting, given that the dish was named after it.

The other element listed on the menu was banana, and in the center of the plate was a scoop of banana ice cream.  I'm actually not a huge fan of banana, so I wasn't enamored with the flavor, but it was perfectly soft and creamy, and reminded me of great gelato.  It was really, really well done.

Speaking of banana, there were also banana chips for more crunch and soft ripe banana slices.  And fresh strawberries.  And ... warm waffle pieces, almost halfway in-between waffle cone and regular waffles, as they were thin, but not crispy.  There was also a powder of some sort.  And ... little crunchy things that we thought were mini cookies, perhaps with macadamia?  But after reading other people's posts I think they might have been walnuts coated in malt?  I have no idea.  Again, awesome crunch.  Then there was a cream, or mousse, perhaps white chocolate, perhaps caramel?  I couldn't tell, but it was sweet, fluffy, and delicious.  Speaking of sweet, the final component was disks of caramel, again crispy.

This was incredible.  So many textures, so many flavors, and quite fun to eat.  You could combine elements in whatever way you wanted to make that "perfect bite".  For me, it was sticky rice, cream, crunchy cookies, and the crunchy caramel.  I didn't really need the additional banana components, nor the waffle.  But, that was the beauty of the dish, everyone could combine it how they wanted.  The playfulness of the snacks we opened with shone through again here.

An impressive finish to an already impressive meal, and the best dessert we had in Sydney.

I wish I could go back again, now.
See review on Urbanspoon
Related Posts with Thumbnails