Ash Street Cellar, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Jason Loucas

Facebook friends brandish iPhones, puffing Marlboro Lights and crowding the velvet rope that separates the In from the Out. There's a lot of heels, hair and hugging, and not a small amount of hotness. There's players, wannabes, cads and hangers-on and everyone's checking out everyone else's assets, fiscal, fashionable and otherwise. This is the queue for Ivy, the mini mall-sized 'dazzling constellation of lifestyle experiences' now dominating George Street's after-dark scene. With its new mix of bars, lounges and restaurants, Justin Hemmes' leafy, sparkly, smoker-friendly compound has something of a latter-day Playboy Mansion vibe and, with a rooftop swimming pool to open in October, more than a dash of the Chateau Marmont about it.

It's too easy to paint it as a love-it-or-hate-it scene. The queues, nicotine and pumping tunes that repel some are a magnet for just as many. Either way there's something about the exuberance of the place and the wildness of its concept that's hard to deny - at least once you're on the right side of the platoon of bouncers and clipboard dollies. The message is this: girls, there's nothing wrong with being yourself, just as long as it's the prettiest, tallest, blondest, youngest, best-dressed version of yourself you can muster. Guys: consider arriving on the arm of five of your tallest, blondest, best-dressed young lady friends, pack sizeable cash bribes, or land your helicopter on the roof.

The beautiful thing about Ash Street Cellar is that it's both a part of Ivy and apart from it. It's in the same complex, but you don't need to enter the fray to get to it. Ash Street runs parallel to George Street, linking up with Angel Place behind Martin Place, so you don't necessarily have to run the gauntlet of security nonsense just to wander in for a drink. It's first and foremost a bar, with the bulk of its seating in a tightly packed configuration of small faux marble-topped round tables and Parisian boulevard-style chairs in the open air of the laneway itself, bringing together equal parts Melbourne-alley cool and Left Bank charm. The fluorescent lighting thrown from the office across the way impedes on the illusion somewhat, the chill wind that whips through the street on cooler nights isn't pleasant, and you have to venture into the unlovely Royal George pokie pit for the bathrooms, but it's otherwise one of the more agreeable spots in the CBD's dead heart to take a drink.

Inside, little touches such as marble facing on the bar, maidenhair ferns under glass cloches, and a mismatched pair of oversized chandeliers give the room plenty of character. The spotlit cake in the kitchen window is a cool idea, and I plan to shoplift the curious ceramic artichokes as soon as the staff avert their eyes. It's definitely the hippest and most grown-up of the Ivy drinking options open to date.

The wine list is great. Franck Moreau, sommelier for Est., has assembled a list of 10 whites and 11 reds available by the taster, glass, carafe and bottle, alongside some interesting fizz and sherry, a wine flight 'of the moment' and, my favourite, a selection of Madeiras that would do Oberon Kant proud. This front-of-list section, with its smart picks from Austria, Spain, Chile, Italy, Argentina and South Africa (and, yes, France, New Zealand and even some from Australia) is augmented by bottles organised under subheadings such as 'crisp and grassy' (Pouilly Fumé, Hunter semillon, Chilean sav blanc) and 'rustic, aromatic and spicy' (Sicilian nero d'Avola, Rhônes, McLaren Vale tempranillo). It's a useful taxonomy, seemingly designed more around the idea of delivering you wine you want to drink than any other conceit. There's plenty there in three-figures (the 1996 vintages of Krug, Ruinart and Salon are fine fantasy material), but also a not-too embarrassing handful of sub-$50 quaffers.

And then there's Lauren Murdoch's food. It's stripped back from what she was doing at Lotus, but it's clearly a mark of confidence and skill, not a lack of ambition. Much of the tapas-styled menu takes its basis from what sounds like a lazy Saturday morning shopping list: bread, butter, eggs, sausages and coldcuts. But my, what wonders Murdoch can conjure from such basics. The egg dishes - once considered by the French to be the true test of a chef's ability - are especially lovely. The cumulus clouds of buttery scrambled eggs that come to the table in a little iron pot with a side of crumbly toasted brioche are almost too simple, but the briny pops from a sprinkle of salmon roe make it a dish you'll come back to order. Baked eggs, served in one of those low terracotta dishes the Spanish call cazuelas, are rich and stinky with Taleggio and roasted tomatoes - the ideal thing to plonk between bon vivants for eating with fingers, bread and gusto.

Continuing the breakfast-for-supper theme, guanciale is the stuff you're supposed to use rather than pancetta or bacon when you're making spaghetti carbonara. The cured cheek of the pig, it has a tang all its own, and served here on - yes - toast, with sautéed mushrooms, is a winner. The salumi selection is excellent - leg ham, capocollo and wagyu bresaola from local heroes Quattro Stelle are complemented by San Daniele prosciutto and jamón Ibérico. I can take or leave the whitebait - aka chips with eyes - though their supporting aïoli is damn fine. The Gorgonzola fondue is a nice idea, despite the fact that neo-fondues normally fill this reporter with rage, and the whiff of truffle oil is something we can all live without. It comes in another of those iron cocottes, with slivers of pear and witlof - a clever reimagining of the blue cheese and pear salads that overran menus for a while five or 10 years ago.

Buffalo mozzarella with baked green tomato, and crostini with caper-sprinkled tuna mayo are two perfect examples of the smart and subtle twists Murdoch brings to familiar bar food staples. There's a seeming effortlessness here that makes it easy to return to the menu time and time again, whether it's for a snack or a meal. Pan-fried blood sausage (from Rodriguez Bros) with apple and micro-cress is honest and appealing, but the sausage to watch (ahem) is the grilled chorizo, partnered with crisp parmesan-crumbed artichokes, mint and lemon. Shored up by a little slick of artichoke purée, it's a dish that's every bit worthy of Murdoch's MG Garage pedigree.

Desserts aren't a focus and tend to please rather than dazzle. That said, little details such as the candied grapefruit peel and blood orange segments on a chocolate mousse, or the quality of the house-churned ice-cream with chocolate sauce (a subtle nod to that sundae celebrity, Dan Hong, back at Lotus?) make it clear they're more than an afterthought. Oddly, no dessert wines are offered by the glass. All the more reason to drink whisky.

Like all small-plate set-ups, Ash Street provides a facility to spend a lot of money quickly. If you're watching your dollars, order in increments rather than in the kind of indiscriminate arm-waving shows of largesse your correspondent is prone to in such situations and you'll be fine. The mark-ups on the wine aren't unspeakable, but neither is this a place to come shopping for bargains, as the line of cash-waving look-at-me types on the other side of the rope attest.

Tucked away from the central spectacle of Ivy, Ash Street is a lime tree bower of urbanity away from the inferno's wood, and in presenting good things to drink and the food to go with them, makes an offer that you won't want to refuse. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou - the perfect place to enjoy the wilderness of the city at a safe remove. The moving finger writes: and having writ, moves on.

Ash Street Cellar

Ivy, street level, 330 George St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 9240 3000, Licensed.
Cards AE DC MC V
Lunch Mon-Fri, noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Fri 6pm-11pm, Sat 6pm-10pm.
Price Small plates $8-$28, desserts $14.
Noise Yes, and smoke.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A great multipurpose venue with elegantly simple food perfect for tipplers and warm evenings.
Minus Not cheap; tables are poky.

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