Catalonia, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Jason Loucas

This restaurant has closed.

You've gotta hand it to anyone willing  to crack raw eggs into a deep-fryer just to see what happens. I'm pretty sure the guys in the kitchen at Catalonia weren't the first to try, but when they do it, the white and yolk get frozen in motion, preserved in hot oil like an eggy comet, a blobby, soft-centred nucleus trailed by a good few inches of crisp eggwhite tail. This is presumably not the result of any molecular hot-dogging, but of hot oil and a drop from a decent height (join me in picturing a very un-OH&S-approved stepladder and deep-fryer arrangement). When it arrives on the table, the egg comet inhabits a cazuela cosmos of asparagus fingers and discs of fried morcilla, the Spanish blood sausage. The goog in question is a duck egg, and when you take knife and fork to this artful arrangement, its intensely yolky richness oozes over the other bits and bobs, saucing them and making the whole thing pretty damned tasty. If that's even vaguely the sort of thing that tickles your fancy, go directly to Catalonia and order it the first chance you get.

This new restaurant, as the name may imply, takes Spain as its inspiration. It's 'Catalonia' in label only, really, with the food a broad interpretation of flavours and techniques from around Spain, rather than any one region, condensed into a menu of some 17 tapas. Another 10 or so supplementary items are offered on the 'Bar snacks and cheese' and 'Bread' sections (I've tried to wrap my head around why the tapas aren't bar snacks and vice versa, but I can't). The pedants among us are already screaming that, while tapas are certainly served in the state of Catalonia, they're not the specialty of that region, and there aren't any especially Catalan things on the menu full-stop. (And yes, all the terms on the menu are in Castilian, not Català, but we can probably let that go for now.) Whatever.

To set the food against the benchmarks of the two best Spanish restaurants in Australia, it doesn't have the ringing authenticity of Melbourne's MoVida, nor the avant-garde panache of Sydney's Bodega. But it's not a million miles from the quality of one or the vigour of the other, and manages to be quite a likeable package. It's more dressed-up than rustic, yes, but there are no foams, airs, espumas or jellies. Who needs spherification when you can throw an egg into a fryer?

Opened in November, Catalonia comprises a bright new two storeys just off Broughton Street, Kirribilli's main restaurant drag. There's a well-stocked bar on the ground floor, and an umbrella'd outside bit, offering what a real-estate agent would dub "Harbour Bridge glimpses". Inside, floors are tiled, tables are unclothed wood and napkins are cloth. There's not much in the way of decoration (compared with, say, Bodega) - geometric-patterned wallpaper, a mirror-wall, some mildly appalling oil paintings. Service is black T-shirted and competent, especially under Jess Kilner, who you may recognise from the floor at, ahem, Bodega.

That downstairs bar, incidentally, churns out some great drinks. There's nothing Spanish about the tequila Negrita (aka the Negroni), pomegranate Margarita or the Spiced Rum Mule (aged Havana Club, spiced sugar syrup, lime juice and ginger beer; a dressed-up Dark & Stormy by any other name), but don't let that hold you back. Kilna-from-Bodega has put together a pretty cool Spanish list (okay, Spanish if you count the South Americans and Australians doing Spanish grapes) that's rife with sherry, cava, albariño, tempranillo and monastrell. There's even a late-harvest torrontes by the glass among the dessert wines.

Chef Brian Villahermosa and co-owner Tom Hoff have spent a bit of time travelling in Spain doing their research. The Hoff's background includes work at Darlinghurst's Victoria Room while Villahermosa worked for the past few years at Salt Yard, a London restaurant with a well-liked, mostly Spanish, mostly tapas menu.

They're not hitting every ball straight off the bat, but they're obviously on track, and they're doing plenty of interesting stuff interspersed with the occasional straight rendering of a Spanish classic. I, for one, am happy to just be able to order a plate of jamón Ibérico with my drinks. The menu doesn't note its provenance, but does specify that you get 20gm for $18.50 - a price the jamón-addicted among us consider perfectly kosher.

On the less-trad side, there are a couple of experiments I won't be racing back for. I like duck, and I like watermelon, for instance, but I don't want to see them on the same plate again in a hurry, chargrilled or otherwise. I'd also love to see the preserved truffle products banished from the kitchen (here and everywhere), not least of all because they seem almost completely at odds with all that's good and great about Spanish food.

They and other moments of effete tizzification are, for my buck, holding Catalonia back as a restaurant. Take the piquillo peppers. A cherished, expensive Spanish artisan product, these wood-roasted, hand-peeled red peppers are usually served very simply. At Catalonia they're stuffed with salt cod brandade - so far so traditional - but then someone has to go and blow it all by adorning them with what they call bagel migas (migas are Spanish breadcrumbs, broadly speaking), but what I call a bagel crisp, plonked on the end of each pepper like a ring of Saturn. It goes from Death in the Afternoon bullfight-cool to Ferdinand the Bull in one fell swoop.

Far better to go for the braised baby octopus with lentils, an earthy dish full of good, honest textures, if not finesse. Slow-cooked pork belly reads better than it eats, with any seasoning applied to the white beans it sits with failing to register with this reporter. Tuna carpaccio with broad beans features both fine fish and beans, but the salsa verde they're dressed with doesn't make much of a connection between them. A standout tortilla with romesco sauce makes a strong case for following tradition. Then there's the zucchini flowers stuffed with Valdeón and goat's cheese mousse. It's a signature at Salt Yard back in London and, deep-fried crisp and splashed with honey that plays off the salt of the cheese beautifully, it's easy to see why.

For the most part, these twists and flourishes are successful. The samfaina - 'Catalonian-style ratatouille' - is attractively stuck with crisped bits of Manchego cheese and gooey halved quail's eggs. Spiced apple purée has decidedly un-macho overtones of baby food, but they don't stop it being a decent foil for slices of good chorizo cooked in cider. The idea of pairing albóndigas, those little meatballs common to a thousand tapas bars, with slices of caramelised peach seems dangerously like the duck-watermelon gambit, but it pays off. (That said, there's more to respect in a moreish, well-made meatball than the stunt-casting of its plate-mate.)

There are some clever ideas on the dessert menu. But I don't think surprising the diner with white chocolate mousse when they've ordered churros con chocolate is one of them. I spooned off the offending white goo to dip the quite good churros into the regular chocolate mousse underneath (I got told off by a waitress for this, so watch yourself). Better still, you could order the crema Catalana - Spain's answer to the crème brûlée - bypass the rice pudding ice-cream it's plated with and use it as a dip for the churros. The other two desserts - a chocolate tart with sea-salt ice-cream and a cava granita with peach and lavender ice-cream - would benefit from better ice-cream, but are nicely conceived.

Catalonia's food is going to get a lot better, and fast, but the fact the place is already chockers shows just how receptive the lower-north shore is to smart-casual dining of this style. Get down there - and ask them to chuck another egg in the fryer for me.


Shop 2, 31a Fitzroy St, Kirribilli, NSW, (02) 9922 4215,
Lunch Wed-Sun, dinner Tue-Sun. Licensed. Major cards accepted.
Prices Tapas $10.50-$18.50, desserts $12.
Noise Noticeable, and some odd music (The Smiths with dinner?).
Vegetarian Not great - five tapas.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A new, vibrant Spanish-ish player north of the harbour.
Minus Catalonia's kitchen is still finding its groove.

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