My day job requires some interstate travel. These days, it’s Sydney and sometimes it’s an overnight trip. For most overnighters, I’m far too knackered to bother with anything remarkable for dinner. I’m probably more confortable at the hotel bar or a local pub over whatever book I’ve brought with me or, boringly catching up on work. How sad.
If I do grab something to eat, I’ll tend to head back to my hotel room and order room service. I cannot bring myself to sit at a table for one looking all forlorn, with my bottom lip quivering and all of the other tables of two; the couples and the other tables of four and six, looking over at me and feeling sorry for me because I’m eating alone.
Pathetic, isn’t it?
However my latest epiphany was to better utilise my occasional stayovers in Sydney. There are a whole bunch of restaurants north of the border that remain on my wish list and it would be remiss of me as a food blogger to let these opportunities pass me by, even if it meant [gasp] eating alone!
The likes of Marque, Quay and the other three-hatted establishments are probably a little too extreme for what really boils down to a simple meal out on a school night. Well, it’s probably a little more than that. Regardless, Four in Hand was my clear first choice, by a mile. After hearing a lot about Colin Fassnidge this year, I’ve remained intrigued at his refined take on the Nose-to-Tail food philosophy. Can you take such robust cuts of an animal and make them pretty? I was going to find out.
Four in Hand is a pub with a really good dining room attached… or is it the other way around? Anyway, the pub itself is your typical inner-suburban Sydney pub; tiled walls retained but not tired in looks… it reminded me a little of the front bar at the Lincoln in Carlton, albeit with a few pokie machines tucked away (nearly) out of view. With the youngish post-work crowd filtering in to take advantage of the $5 ‘happy hour’ schooners, served by the effervescent and quite attractive female bar staff, you would not expect there was a two-hat restaurant attached to this establishment. Only do you begin to realise that this is a little different when the specials board in the front bar reads Pork Rillettes and Crumbed Pigs Tail with Celeriac Remoulade.
After a few cleansing $5 schooners, I prised myself from the bar stool and made my way into the dining room, to be ushered to my solitary table for one [sob], near the window. On the converse, when you enter the dining room, you would not expect there was a bustling, lively pub on the other side of the door. It’s a great contrast.
The menu is fairly minimal, with six or so different starters and the same of mains. This makes good sense, given there’s so much care, attention and effort invested into some very pretty dishes. The over-sized mirror on the wall next to the kitchen lists the specials of the night; freshly shucked natural oysters and a tempting cumin-spiced 12-hour lamb shoulder served with baby carrots, colcannon, minted yoghurt and rosemary jus ($88 for 2 people). One of the number of waiting staff that served me on the night tried to coerce me: “it could feed one and if there’s any left over, we could organise a doggy bag”. Then I see the beast of a shoulder being served to another table. I don’t think so.
There was to be no ordering off the menu on this night. I was here for the whole experience and I given it may be some time before I visited Four in Hand again, I may as well go out with all guns blazing, taking no prisoners, etc, etc. There were two degustation menus to choose from; a five course degustation menu ($90 + an optional $60 with matching wines) or you could really give it a nudge with the Chef’s Menu; an eight course degustation menu ($120 + an optional $70 with matching wines).
I ambitiously opted for the latter and proceedings were duly opened with some top notch sourdough (from Iggy’s, which seems to be the bread of choice in good Sydney restaurants), good butter and a Delgado Zuleta ‘La Goya’ Manzanilla Sherry as a palate cleanser. This was closely followed by the kitchen’s amuse-bouche; a smoked fish, paprika and basil soup, aptly served in an espresso cup (the colour of the soup resembled a good crema). The soup was light and refreshing. A citrus zing hit the sides of my tongue, finishing on creaminess. A great start.
Soon after, my first course of seared Bonito with avocado, apple jelly and cucumber arrived. A very pretty dish, unusually served in a tuna tin atop some pebbles. An interesting touch but I’m not sure as to what it represented. It made me feel like I was eating a bloody good tin of cat food (note: this is a weird compliment) due to the tuna and jelly components. A 2010 Domäne Wachau Gewürztraminer, was a light and fruity accompaniment to the dish.
The second course was to become my favourite of the night. Sometimes you eat or drink something that instantly makes you smile because it’s so damn good and this dish did just that. A small mound of well seasoned, fresh crab, lobster and corn kernels were served in a shallow bowl with a soft, yielding braised pig’s tail. An accompanying petite jug of rich, fishy bisque was poured at the table by one of the waiting staff to complete this unforgettable dish. The saltiness of the bits of corn and seafood were heavenly against the sweetness and unctuousness of the pig’s tail and the creaminess of the bisque which also provided the slightest ever back note of spice. A perfect marriage of flavours and textures. In short, the most defining superlative is that it was just fucking amazing. The accompanying Denis Pommier Petit Chablis Chardonnay was again a great match, particularly with the creaminess of the bisque.
Course number three was a well cooked piece of roasted kingfish, smoked eel, beetroot reduction, beetroot leaves and a soft pillow of gnocchi. An exceptional range of textures, lightened by the beetroot leaves. The smokiness and saltiness of the eel played off against the sweet reduction. Just make sure you eat this dish with a little care and caution as the potential splashback from the beetroot could ruin one’s shirt if not careful. As for wine, my notes go as far as telling me that the accompanying drop was an ‘Italian white’… Great note taking, Paul.
We then moved into the serious stuff, crossing from the lighter dishes into some more hearty fare. Pig; head to toe or nose to tail… or something similar was a great example of an uber-rich dish done well, leaving you (greedily) wanting more. A piece of perfectly cooked pork belly, a chop from a rack (complete with crackling) and pickled snout were served on a dark wooden board with a number of accompaniments that worked very well to off-set the richness; kale, pickled turnips and a vanilla puree. Rustic food with some serious polish. An obvious match was from the lighter spectrum of reds in the form of a Tuscan Sangiovese (Casabianca Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG).
The second meat course was liquorice-braised beef brisket, an ever so tender slice of veal (tenderloin?) on top of a smoked puree, a small stack of some very precise onion rings and a carrot and Manzanilla sherry puree to accompany a generous length of roasted bone marrow. The sherry in the carrot puree was a masterstroke, another addition incorporated to off-set the richness, in this case the marrow. The liquorice sauce was subtle, sticky, rich and oh so warming, as was the familiar McLaren Vale Penny’s Hill Shiraz to compliment the dish.
I could have happily rolled out out of the front door at this point, but there was still a way to go. You observe a lot more when you’re dining by yourself and earlier in the evening, sitting on top of a cabinet just below the stair case, I spied what was the largest cheese board in the world. An array of eight or nine, maybe ten, seriously good imported cheeses; three types of goat’s cheese, a very ripe d’Affinois, comté, cheddar, a couple of washed rind cheeses and a couple of blue cheeses. Had I not been five dishes into an eight-course meal, I would have loved to try them all, but I duly settled on the d’Affinois, comté, one of the blue cheeses and one of the washed rind cheeses.
As the cheeses were being taken into the kitchen to be sliced and served, three wine glasses were placed on the table, each filled with a different dessert wine to compliment the final courses. If my memory serves me correctly (as my notes surely don’t) there was a Botrytis Semillon, a Rutherglen Muscadelle (the ‘new’ name for a tokay) and a Pedro Ximenez – or something similar. Clearly, things were getting a little hazy at this point.
The cheeses were, as expected, exemplary and served with the lightest and bestest ever house-made lavosh I have ever come across. If Colin ever takes the Luke Mangan route and touts a whole bunch of stuff for people to take home, this is one thing he should consider selling… in addition to jars of pickled pig snouts.
The penultimate course was a prune puree, Armagnac cream, and hot ginger crumble. It’s a damn shame the cold months are over as I’ll be madly trying to replicate this crunchiest crumble ever recipe next winter, although the waiter hinted that Demerara sugar was used. Brilliant!
I barely had the room to manage the last course. Alas, it wasn’t the ‘4’s’ Chocolate Snickers, but chocolate and beetroot; a chocolate delice on a beetroot sauce, beetroot cubes, beetroot and ginger sorbet, chocolate tuile and a fine dusting of cocoa… I think I managed to remember everything. Sometimes you can come across some pretty naff pairings of beetroot and chocolate, but this hit the mark. The best example I have tasted of how and why these two ingredients can work so well together, in addition to the other things like the contrasting textures – crunchy tuile versus soft delice and the heat from the ginger against a cold sorbet.
Some Cointreau and chocolate truffles with a well made short black managed to find the last of the vacant room in my tummy, to round out what was a most exceptional and memorable experience.
As much as I don’t like eating alone and some will argue that you do not need good friends to enjoy good food, I am yet to agree. Sharing in conversation and sharing the experience are just as much, especially when it’s this good. Let’s hope I can rid myself of this self-effacing, oh-woe-is-me attitude so I can continue to discover Sydney’s other delights when I am again on my lonesome. I also hope Four in Hand hasn’t set the bar too high.
Four in Hand
105 Sutherland St, Paddington 2021
(03) 9362 1999
Good For: Convincing staunch Melburnians that the Sydney food scene is smoking
Not Good For: Nothing, really. It was all too good.