Monopole, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Ben Dearnley

Nick Hildebrandt and Brent Savage want to slip you some tongue. The snacks side of Monopole's first menu was succinct: charcuterie, oysters, bread and butter - and the tongue. It was ox tongue, brined, poached tender, cut into very thin slices and laid across a crisp little spelt croûton about the size of two postage stamps. There was a creamy lick of goat's curd on it, too, and fine cucumber pickles, and as a single bite to begin a meal or accompany a first drink it was lovely and crunchy and perfect and no one bought it at all.

As the "house-cured beef pastrami", however, it's walking out the door. It's not precisely the same dish - the croûton has expanded to resemble a Salada in its snack-sized configuration and the quantity of beef has been increased accordingly, not to mention threaded onto a skewer and grilled briefly just before it's served. And it's still tongue. Is the dish less honest now? Slightly. Just as delicious? Certainly. A menu marketing coup? Indubitably.

The other highlight of the snack menu sits at precisely the opposite end of the scary-foods spectrum. So much so that even the most lily-livered of non-liver-eating lily-lovers can adopt it as their own: not just corn, but baby corn - a serving of several wee cobs, charred in their husks and served with yoghurt, that most unthreatening of dairy products. Sometimes the sauce is flavoured with tamarind; more recently it's been smoky, with tarragon in it. The corn comes up delicious, charry and interesting regardless.

Of course, with Hildebrandt and Savage at the tiller, "interesting" had to be a given. The Bentley, their Surry Hills restaurant, was a touchstone for adventurous booze and edgy food long before anyone else talked of natural wines, and it remains so long after the Spanish foaminista chefs passed the baton to their beardy, hedgerow-bustling Nordic successors. Since word got around that the pair was opening a second, more wine-focused venture, expectations have been high.

The default setting for these guys is quality with a dash of idiosyncrasy. Take a closer look at the smaller eats of the Monopole menu: the bread is Iggy's, the oysters pristine Pacifics, the charcuterie - duck ham, beef brisket, smoked pork neck, venison rump - all house-made. When they first opened back in December the servings of the cured meats were risibly scant - it was almost as though they'd made way too little and were loath to part with it. Now the gauge on the slicer has been eased back, the spicing seems to have settled into place, and they're all pretty damned good except for the venison. The venison might be good for sealing punctures in bicycle tires, but as a thing you're supposed to eat? Skip it.

But don't skip the octopus. Our eight-legged friends are one of the proteins that low-and-slow cooking sous-vide style can get very right, and that's most certainly the case here. The tentacles get cooked at 45 degrees for a fortnight (yes, I made those figures up) to render them thoroughly unresisting to the tooth before they go on the grill. Dressed with a kombu and scampi vinaigrette and plated up with juicy sea bananas (little fingers of pigface-like beach succulent), nubbins of salsify and long, ribbon-like shavings of dried bonito, the oc-bits have both lightness and mouth-filling richness. It's a dizzying dish. The smokiness the handsome charcoal grill brings is another thing that distances Monopole from its parent restaurant, and that lends dimension to the likes of hazelnut-buttered split scampi or the sirloin steak, with its rings of pickled onion and Bordelaise-meets-au-poivre sauce of bone marrow and three kinds of peppercorn. It's highly edible, frequently fork-waving stuff.
Savage's approach to presentation chimes nicely with Pascale Gomes-McNabb's design for the space. In her renovation of the Bentley a few years ago, the fêted Melbourne designer made it feel more intimate and softened its acoustics, changing its atmosphere dramatically. She's taken a similar tack with Monopole. It's a long, dark room with a bar and an open kitchen running its length, packed to brimming most nights with patrons enjoying the odd alcoholic beverage, and yet the noise levels are managed artfully enough (thanks in part to dramatic curtains of felt planks and cord and the crimped grey felt baffles that caterpillar across the ceiling) that the buzz doesn't become a din.

I think Savage is about as interested in creating a perfectly accessible and friction-free menu as Stravinsky was in writing jingles for soap powder. Or not. Maybe he's just the guy who brings the sea bananas and the buttermilk whey to the barbie. I don't get the impression he has set about assembling a collection of dishes that particularly flatter wine any more at Monopole than he did at Bentley. But I also think Hildebrandt and his lieutenants are proficient enough in their work that devising pairings for coq au vin and steak with Béarnaise might just send them round the twist.

As it is, they get to tangle with the likes of yellow, purple and green beans, beetroots roasted and pickled, red and yellow witlof, roast almonds chopped in half and a dressing that, though it's made with blue cheese and mustard, remains merciful miles from the "bleu" concoctions of American lunch counters. It's fresh, racily acidic, and it finds a fine foil in the chenin blanc made by James Erskine (a former GT Sommelier of the Year, no less) in the Adelaide Hills under his Jauma label.

These wine-matching challenges reach their pinnacle with dessert. Savage loves a buttery crumb, perhaps never more than in his brown butter curd (read: a quenelle of soft caramelly ice-cream) with little scallops of fragrant nectarine and nectarine sorbet. It's just too sweet for the wines on offer by the glass to get in edgewise. Perhaps this explains the offer of six cheeses against just two desserts. Caveat bibentis.

Hildebrandt has a cellar-deep store of wine knowledge and a recall for things he and his customers have drunk that sometimes borders on the disturbing. His palate (and, perhaps as importantly, his faith in his own judgement) places him well ahead of the curve, and new producers, regions of interest and stylistic developments show up on his lists months, sometimes years, ahead of the competition. He was the first sommelier to give real attention to Lucy Margaux's Adelaide Hills pinot noir, and now Monopole lists four bottlings, including a "Bentley Barrel" produced exclusively for Hildebrandt.

The list here is, if anything, more personal than at Bentley. Whether local or far-flung, cult producers are rife on this radiant document, some of them exclusive to the venue. Across the spread you'll still find the significant names represented in their better vintages: the big Châteauneuf-du-Papes are here, the great Burgundies (Bordeaux, though, barely rates a mention) and their New World counterparts, but it also goes deep on the Loire, Beaujolais and the Jura. It's a masterclass in serious Champagne, too, not least because Hildebrandt has one of the nation's better collections of Jacques Selosse.

And these bottles aren't here to gather dust. There's no shortage of entry points for those of us whose aspirations for their wine-drinking are, ahem, perhaps greater than our knowledge or funds. By the glass, there's four Equipo Navazos Sherries on pour, three sakes, a smart little crémant, a cloudy Tasmanian grüner and a McLaren Vale Montepulciano. There's rather a lot more to it, including the local Pinchgut Pils on tap, a beer which, says Hildebrandt, is just the ticket with a nice "pastrami" cracker.


71a Macleay St, Potts Point, (02) 9360 4410,
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Lunch noon-3pm Sat & Sun; dinner daily 6pm-10pm.
Prices Small dishes $8-$20, larger dishes $24-$32, desserts $14, tasting menu $65.
Vegetarian Four dishes.
Noise Cranked-up rather than raucous.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A vinous paradise with ambitious food to match.
Minus A bit light-on for bar snacks.

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