Sagra, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Phillip Castleton

Let us now praise food that hasn't been substantially buggered around with. But where do you draw the line, quail members of the plate-smearing brigade. Mayonnaise is the result of pretty radically altered eggs, so why not take them a step further and turn them into a kind of snow that you throw over customers while they snort rails of bacon dust to a soundtrack of someone eating toast? Well, that's exactly the thing with taste, isn't it? It's knowing when to damn well leave well enough alone. Old Louis Armstrong knew the score: if you have to ask, you'll probably never know.

The buzz with Sagra grew slowly. Word of mouth was its currency when it first opened this past spring, and rather than hanging out its shingle in the glare of a pre-opening media blitz, it had time to ripen on the vine. A rare thing today. "They don't muck around with the food too much," said one early-adopting pal. "It's just a good, cheap, fun restaurant." It was another friend who really nailed it, though: "These guys," she said, "just get it."

It's pretty much the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. All the better when the neighbourhood is Stanley Street, where the Italian food can be good or well priced but is seldom both. You could conceivably blow in for a bowl of zuppa al aglio, some spaghetti con le sarde and a glass of wine and walk out well fed and happy with change from $50 in your pocket. The soup is all the better for its simplicity: garlic, oil and pecorino, given body with bread. The spaghetti is superb - an agrodolce melding of sardines melted into a sauce with wild fennel, well-toasted pine nuts and currants. A little verdicchio from Le Marche on the side, maybe.

There are twists here, too, but they're elegantly reasoned. Ox heart - the heart of the ox rather than the breed of tomato - forms the centrepiece of one of the more unexpected entrées. Whole hearts are fairly confronting, true, but cut into strips and grilled, beef heart resembles nothing so much as firm, densely tasty meat, with none of the squish, fur or bounce of its fellow variety meats. It's paired with a velvet purée of dried broad beans. This isn't stunt-casting: the heart is on the plate because it tastes good (and presumably evens out the food costs). It works.

The fit-out is more utilitarian than not. The tables are hewn, seemingly, from the rough timbers of fence posts. The napkins are paper, the room largely undecorated save for some dangling Edison bulbs, serried jars of preserves (reminiscent of the jams Sean Moran used to line the shelves with at Panaroma in Bondi) and a large framed mirror.

The chairs are those metal numbers that designers prize, not seemingly designed with human buttocks in mind. The less said about the gerberas in soda-bottle vases the better. But it's not uncomfortable and though the buzz gets quite powerful on a Saturday night, the acoustics are pretty good for what's more or less two small rooms in the bottom half of a Darlinghurst terrace. Combined with the fresh-faced, friendly, genuinely helpful and knowledgeable service, it gives an overall impression of likeable pluck.

It's an atmosphere that's very much simpático with what's happening on the plate and in the glass. The wine list is short, smart, 100 per cent Italian, and changes every fortnight. There's a silken Greto Lambrusco among the frizzante that goes with just about everything, and nothing is more than $60 for the bottle. Let's pause and let that sink in a moment: wine by the glass starts at $8, and no bottle costs more than $60. This list isn't here for tyre-kicking; it's here for drinking. These guys intend to sell every bottle they buy.

The fact that they visit the markets themselves a couple of times a week and buy their beasts whole says good things to me. I'm also really pleased, as something of a regular, to note their economy. They don't hold back on the plate - far from it - and this is by no means a restaurant where you feel like the owner has his hand in your pocket half the time. They just know how to make the most of their ingredients every step of the way. The hapuku, pan-fried buttery and lush, is teamed very effectively with grilled zucchini ribbons and (again) nicely toasted slivers of almond, at once gutsy and precise. If there's any of the same fish left the next day it appears salted as a sort of fresh baccalà mantecato adorned with little bits of hot red chilli as a topping for bruschetta on the antipasto menu.

The prime cuts of the suckling pigs end up roasted as a main course option, a shard of crackling balanced atop the milky meat, accompanied by fennel cooked to the point where it's sweet, soft and almost caramelised along with a hit of salsa verde. The rest of the pig (its leg meat, chiefly) makes up the substance of a ragù that's mixed through lovely wide, elastic ribbons of pappardelle, easily one of the best dishes on the menu. And, at $18, reason enough on its own to come to the restaurant.

House-made or otherwise, pasta is one of the big drawcards here. There's something almost magical about the way the acidity of the dressed slivers of violetta artichoke balances the butteriness of the herb-flecked tagliatelle they're served with. If there's no suckling pig on the go, that superb pappardelle might be sauced with braised wild boar.

The menu is worked out between young owner and head chef Nigel Ward and chefs Glenn Choy and Pelle Kossmann. Between them they've clocked time at Sean's Panaroma, Lucio's, the River Café and Trullo in London, and all have spent plenty of time in Italy. They consistently pull off that rare feat of making the food seem spontaneous in its inception and construction, while hitting all the marks of freshness, seasoning and texture.

Malfatti means "badly made", but these little gnudi-like dumplings of ricotta and silverbeet, drenched in sage butter, are anything but, and the same goes for the shallot fritti, the bulbs sweet and tender in their crisp semolina-crumb jackets, with the occasional little surprise of an anchovy fried with a sage leaf in the mix. The Gorgonzola fonduta to the side is restrained enough to let the shallots shine. The zucchini flowers, stuffed with a mix of finely chopped zucchini, mint and pecorino, are fried with an equally deft touch.

There's meatier stuff to be had, too. The offer of an Angus flank with fried polenta seems pretty much made for the lunch crowd (and could happily occasion a bottle of juicy nero d'Avola), while the handsome pork chop is notable for the acid balance brought by the Roman beans and salsa rossa.

I hope they've figured out that they need to serve the ice-cream with a spoon stronger than the little wooden Mr Whippy number mine came with the first time I visited, because the ice-cream itself - almond praline topped with a granita made from blood oranges - is damned fine. No matter: the smashed meringue with blueberries and mascarpone, a lighter, Italianate update of Eton mess, is a perfectly delicious alternative. As is the frangipane-based, nicely short fruit tart with crème fraîche. Today it's pear, tomorrow it could be cherry and almond. Either way you win.

In Italy a sagra is a small regional festival, a bit like a town fair, and some centre on a particular food or ingredient. (The guys over at Berta, on the CBD-Surry Hills fringe, have made a tremendous success of their Tuesday sagra nights, still one of the best deals in town.) In Darlinghurst, Sagra is a festival of many small things done well and without much front, amounting to an immensely likeable restaurant that sends its customers out into the night content, smiling and almost certainly planning a repeat visit.

"I really hope that Sagra gives people a feeling similar to what you'd experience dining in Italy: seasonal, fuss-free food, prepared with love and restraint," says Nigel Ward. "Somewhere to eat yourself stupid, drink a lot of wine, talk loudly and have a good old time."

Yeah, these guys get it.

62 Stanley St, Darlinghurst, (02) 8307 0430.
Open Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight.
Cards MC V EFT
Price entrées $15-$18, main courses $28-$30, desserts $8-$12.
Vegetarian Antipasti plus pasta.
Noise A happy buzz.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus These guys just get it.
Minus The chairs, the paper napkins.

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