Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Chris Chen
On those days when I want to walk into a kitchen, shake chefs by the shoulders and throw their food on the floor, I think of Jeremy Strode. Here's a chef whose cooking is so fine and consistent that you could set your clock by it. I don't know whether it's by dint of effort or natural talent, whether it was the years he spent working for Michel Roux, Roger Vergé and Pierre Koffmann in France and the UK, or if, in fact, he was bitten by a radioactive spider in his tender years, developing powers beyond those of ordinary men, but Strode gets it right. Half his brilliance seems to be simply not making the mistakes that drag the competition down: he buys good ingredients in season, he cooks them simply, for the most part, and well, and he presents them with a very few other things on the plate, just enough to create interest through contrasts and harmonies of flavours and textures. Rocket science? Maybe not, but certainly the rocket leaves are fresh, and every single one has had its stem neatly manicured before it's been lightly but comprehensively dressed.
Want to know how a green bean should really be cooked? Look no further than the side dish here at Strode's new city restaurant, a bowl full of perfect examples, luminous with chlorophyll, topped (but not tailed), oiled and taken to that sublime point where they offer still some resilience but no crunch. If you love calf's liver but have given up ordering it in restaurants after that overcooked liver too many, Jeremy Strode's restaurants are your hepatic safe harbour, a comfort zone where you can be confident the liver will come to the table with not only that essential pink centre but also a damned fine side of bacon.
Bistrode, Jeremy Strode's Bourke Street, Surry Hills, headquarters of the past five years, has been the perfect fit for this sort of food. The butcher's-shop setting matches the bistro theme in its cosiness, and echoes London's St John restaurant in its white-walled minimalism. Now, though, Strode fans have a new, bigger stage on which to make the most of his work. Bistrode CBD is a collaboration between the chef and Merivale, the Hemmes family's ever-expanding conglomeration of hotels and restaurants, which now includes Ivy, the Establishment, The Beresford and The Slip Inn, taking in Lotus, Est., Ash Street Cellar, Uccello, Sushi E and soon Felix bistro and Ms G's on Victoria Street. This seems more a meeting of minds than a buy-out. Merivale patriarch John Hemmes views it, in fact, as the happy conclusion of a conversation he began with Strode 12 years ago, when Strode was still cooking in Melbourne.
The Hemmes have given Strode free rein to do as he will with the food and to brand the space formerly occupied by Bistro CBD strongly with the Bistrode identity. Apart from being longer, the menus are almost identical to those back at the original restaurant, right down to the Times New Roman type and the recycled cardboard sleeves. The floor doesn't have the benefit of sommelier Clara Davidson's presence (she's still at Bourke Street, where Jane Strode has taken charge) - but her influence can be seen alongside that of Merivale group sommelier Franck Moreau in the wine list, a smart document that retains the Bistrode flavour. Strode's collection of black-and-white chef portraits by Earl Carter has moved to King Street with him, and now Michel Roux, Fergus Henderson, Pierre Koffmann and co smile their benediction from the walls of a coolly business-casual first-floor room. The tables are polished timber, the music is Sinatra and Holiday and the suits are loving it.
Rockpool Bar & Grill might have a lock on what remains of Sydney's expense-account dollar, but Bistrode CBD has very quickly become the clubhouse, the meeting place, somewhere you can transact business quickly and professionally as you loosen the lanyard and relax. At dinner it's as polished as any strong CBD restaurant, but at lunch it's on fire. The service is by no means rushed - and your table is definitely yours for as long as you want it - but by golly it's fast. Flavoursome, chewy sourdough from Iggy's Bread is on the table in a heartbeat, followed closely by water and wine. And, if you're smart, a small plate of deafeningly crunchy pork scratchings with apple sauce.
Strode, for his part, is giving it his all. This is no mere consultancy gig. He's in the kitchen, cooking his guts out. Think "hearts and minds", an entrée constructed around the winning theme of lamb's brains (breaded and fried crisp outside, Vaseline-creamy inside) and grilled bits of lamb heart, with witlof and watercress. Or the festival of pig that is the black sausage, egg and pig's ear salad. Constructed along similar lines, playing the richness of the meaty bits against fresh, slightly bitter greens in a pleasantly acidic dressing, it's the elegant face of offal eating. The slices of black pudding are more porky and less powdery-bloody than most, and the fine shreds of crisp fried ear are pure crunchy delectability, especially played off against the gooey yolk of the soft-boiled egg.
Strode's love of smoked eel will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the original Bourke Street. And like the superb corned wagyu beef with brown bread dumplings and the peerless shredded confit duck salad (replete with occasional giblets), it has made the transition downtown with him. The current main-course configuration sees a strip of eel laid across a rather elegant bubble 'n' squeak light on cabbage and rich on buttery fingerling potatoes. Pale-pink bacon, hot and striped from the griddle, plus a little thatch of watercress makes for a plate where balance is bang-on and nothing extraneous intrudes. If it's something new you're after, the curry for two - yes, Jeremy Strode cooking curry - is for you. It's India meets slow-cooked beef short-ribs, warm and mild rather than bland and mannered, and with plenty of gelatinous give. Speaking of gelatinous, the tripe also describes another departure from Strode's usual Franglais palette, teamed as it is with black vinegar, chilli and onion.
This more expansive menu also allows room for more in the way of steak. The challenge is in choosing between the grain-fed flank and the dry-aged grass-fed rib-eye, which comes with nettle butter. If the massive beefiness of the flank is any guide, it's a pretty decent option. The fanned slices of meat share plate with a glossy red wine sauce that sparkles where most would dull, and a round of roast bone marrow, paired, as per Fergus Henderson, with a neat little salad of parsley and capers. And whether you're going down this route or chasing the whole grilled flounder, there's a suitably impressive suite of sides along for the ride - good chips, great roast parsnips or simply a green salad that's beyond reproach.
Meaty prune and Armagnac ice-cream, served in a stemless wine glass with a little chestnut madeleine to the side, is the perfect oh-no-I-couldn't-possibly dessert, but if you're going all out, there's always the sugar rush of Jane's honey tart with peanut butter ice-cream (this kitchen doesn't quite yet have Jane Strode's Lorraine Godsmark-like knack for pastry precision, true), or the dark chocolate burnt cream, a bar-menu favourite that's not unlike a brûlée-topped chocolate Yogo.
The whole, ladies and gentlemen, is definitely greater than the sum of the parts at Bistrode CBD. Here Jeremy Strode has found a sizeable service and support staff and an all but built-in audience for his city-smart, country-sweet cooking. In Strode, Bistrode CBD has found the perfect chef for its room and clientele, and food that is lifted distinctly beyond the everyday without ever being tricked-up or pretentious. Here's to the easy charm of getting it right.
Level 1, 52 King St, Sydney, (02) 8297 7010, www.merivale.com.
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Fri 6pm-10pm.
Prices Entrées $16-$21.50; mains $28.50-$39.50; desserts $16-$17.50.
Vegetarian One entrée.
Noise Not a problem.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Too much Jeremy Strode is never enough.
Minus The burger's available only in the bar.