I’m one negroni down and in search of culinary adventure in Surry Hills once more. The choices are endless and I’m on my own so the decision is all mine.
|One of my favourite buildings - the uber-gothic Crown St Public School|
I’ve been having a drink with a friend at the delightfully secret Berta so I walk up Oxford Street and turn onto Crown. This time last year I was at the southern end, dining at Red Lantern. Tonight, however, my fancy turns to a restaurant closer into the city, the brightly-lit and bustling Bills (sic – my teaching soul shudders at the punctuation but I am in a forgiving mood).
I don’t have a reservation but I know from experience that a table for one is usually easy to come by and I am willing to play the pity card if need be: “I’m a poor waif from Perth, far from home, on my own and hungry…” – but there is a table for me in the corner so I don’t have to beg.
From my nook, I have a prime view of not only the counter and the kitchen but also the whole restaurant and the other dinners. The waiter, a super-smiley young woman, takes my order for a glass of Veuve as I settle down to contemplate the menu.
The Bill of Bills is, of course, Bill Granger, Australian ex-pat chef, well-known for his seafood recipes, so seafood is the way I go. Spiced calamari, preserved lemon & chickpea salad followed by crisp ocean trout, ruby grapefruit, coriander and chilli salad are my choices for the evening.
What strikes me first is the energy of the staff. I watch the interaction of the manager and my waiter. They are unboxing bottles of Veuve (now there’s a job – Veuve unboxer!) and stacking the champagne on the shelves. They are talking about how pretty the candy-pink boxes are, and the manager gives the waiter one to take home.
The calamari dish comes out quickly. The char on the squid and the preserved lemon give an excellent balance of alkaline and acid. There’s a generous helping of chickpeas and fresh greens. It’s a little overdressed for my taste – a mite too much liquid by the time I get to the bottom of the bowl – but not so much that it spoils my enjoyment of the dish as a whole.
As I wait for my main, I watch an exchange between the manager and a departing customer.
“What did you think of the dessert?” he asks.
She tells him about the lemon almond pudding that she had and how she found it a bit runny, would have preferred it firmer. She then goes on to praise the lamb kofta that she had for her main, telling him it was ‘spot on’. He thanks her for the feedback and, after she has gone, takes this information directly to the chef. I eavesdrop on the exchange – it’s polite and to the point, leading with the praise and being frank with the criticism.
When my waiter comes back with my main I ask her if it is a good place to work.
“It’s a very good place,” she says, adding that most of the staff have been on board for two or three years. Continuity is a wonderful thing. The table service is effortless and the interaction between staff and customers easy without being officious.
The crispy ocean trout is precisely that – triangles of crunchy fish skin alternating with good-sized chunks of trout. The blend of grapefruit, mint and cucumber takes the edge off the fatty skin. It’s indulgent as well as reviving, though not as reviving as that second glass of Veuve.
The waiter asks if I want dessert but I can’t do it (although I am tempted to try the lemon almond pudding just to see if it is as texturally ambivalent as the previous customer had declared…) Instead I ask for a long black coffee and am charmed to be offered the choice of raw or refined sugar to go with it.
Meanwhile the manager and the waiter are busy with a toffee hammer and a batch of peanut brittle which they have just made. They are delighted with it and I am happy to see them get excited when they taste it.
Then a surprise. The waiter puts a couple of slivers of peanut brittle on a plate and brings it over to me.
“You must try,” she says, her smile just beaming, “It’s so good!”
And it is.
As I go to pay, I compliment the manager on his establishment and service. I tell him that I was particularly impressed with the rapid delivery of feedback about the dessert.
“You really were listening, weren’t you?” he says.
I guess that’s just one of the perks of dinner for one. The time to look and listen as well as to taste.
He gives me his card. I buy a copy of Bill Granger’s “Easy” (I don’t have time to check but I hope there is a recipe for lemon almond pudding inside) and head for the door.
The manager holds it open for me, as he has done for every customer throughout the evening. I hate to leave the warm room and the happy faces for the cold street but by now I am one negroni and two glasses of Veuve down and it really is past my bed-time.