Café Nice, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Rob Shaw

In this world, the interesting stuff usually happens at the edges. The wider ocean is a desert, but where it meets the land it blooms with life. It's the same over and over again in so many spheres, rich meets poor, old meets new, night meets day, and most especially when cultures mingle. Take Nice, for example, a city that's been Italian for almost as many of its last 500 years as it has been French - variously an ally of Pisa, part of the League of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

It's been ravaged by Barbary pirates, besieged by the Saracens and mobbed by the British to boot. As a result, the cuisine is as much about the influence of Liguria as it is France.

Nice is also a long way from Paris, perhaps further culturally than geographically. The patron saint of the French capital is Geneviève, a fifth-century nun celebrated for safeguarding the sanctity of the city's virgins through the example of her own virtue, and for averting an invasion of the Huns by means of prayer. Nice's patron, a 16th-century washerwoman called Catherine Ségurane, meanwhile, is remembered fondly for repulsing some invaders to that city by baring her bottom to them and wiping herself with a captured Ottoman flag.

All of which brings us neatly to the lusty shores of Circular Quay, and to Café Nice. The look here isn't Australian-bistro standard - that is, the bistros of the Left Bank as interpreted by Englishman Keith McNally at Balthazar in Manhattan and reinterpreted, in a Baudrillardian fashion, by Sydney and Melbourne restaurateurs - but rather, as Catherine Ségurane might note with an approving wiggle of her famous derrière, a sunny, southern thing, rendered in bright strokes by maximalist Melbourne designer Michael Delany. Bright jangling portrait-prints of such French icons as Bardot and, erm, Jagger and McQueen adorn the entrance. By the kitchen door hangs a trio of seahorses in a timber frame. A sliver of Sydney Harbour sparkles beyond the Cahill Expressway in a landscape you could call Seurat by way of Smart.

Up and down goes the lift, hither and yon whoosh trains on the City Circle line.

But wait a minute. Doesn't this all sound terribly familiar? Well, yes. Café Nice was opened back at the beginning of 2013 by Fratelli Fresh dad-and-daughter team Barry McDonald and Nina Gravelis. And to the casual observer things are largely the same: the mirrors are lettered with French-ish slogans (among them the famously not-French expression laissez les bon temps rouler), the napkins are still paper, more in tune with the café part of the name than the prices they're asking (though the value, for the most part, is more than sound). There's still branding on just about everything: the paper placemats at the bar, the glasses for the wine. It seems a bit tacky, but there again it would be completely the norm in France. All that's missing is the Ricard jug.

The service hasn't stepped up dramatically, but it has got more interesting. I particularly enjoyed a very French exchange with one young waitress where fairly straightforward questions she couldn't answer were met with a chewing of the finger that the generous diner might label "insouciant". Wine is poured, tables are set, food is brought, bills are settled. Anything more than that might be asking too much, and natural courtesies such as waiting until both parties at a table are done eating before clearing plates shouldn't be taken as a given. The thyme in one of the planter stands has died, but the music and the wine list have improved.

The opening menu then-chef David Young wrote was inspired by Nice and the larger cuisine of the south of France, with excursions to the Republic of Bistros Everywhere - ratatouille with poached egg, lentils with pistou and pancetta, a well-liked poulet rôti for two. And so it is today: roast chicken for two, steak tartare and filet de boeuf alongside pissaladière, crudités and aïoli, tapenade.

So what's new? Josh Niland. Young chef Niland has cut a streak through the top eateries in this town, making as much of a name for himself at Est, the now defunct The Woods and Fish Face as his relatively limited time spent cooking in each kitchen would allow. The quality of the dishes Niland put on the table in the short-lived experiment Fish Face conducted in fine-dining out the back of the Double Bay restaurant last year marked him very clearly as a chef with real gifts. Here's hoping that even if Café Nice isn't the most glittering backdrop for his work, he'll stick around long enough to develop his talent a bit more and share it with a broader audience.

To his credit, rather than simply pay lip service to the restaurant's theme, he has both deepened the exploration of the region on the menu, and fine-tuned its expression. With some dishes, it's just been a matter of bringing them into crisper focus. Pissaladière, the anchovy, olive and sweet-onion tart that might be the city's second most famous dish, is still here in a single-serve miniature, only now it doesn't shatter into a million annoying crumbs under the fork or tooth.

It's also joined on the menu by a pichade, the version of the dish from nearby Menton which incorporates tomatoes, done here in a thin layer of lava-like jam.

The menu is composed as one A4 side of hors d'oeuvre ("Each dish is served when it's ready" reads the head note), with the other side broken down into plats principaux, grillade and garniture. A diner at the bar or a table full of revellers could make merry with the reasonably priced, almost entirely French and Italian wine list and a good tilt at the first page: leeks vinaigrette, tender and garnished with pickled mustard seeds; torn braised red peppers with top-shelf salted anchovies, shiny black olives and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano; a gooey, funky omelette freighted with caramelised onion and meli melo, a Pyrenean cheese made from goat's and ewe's milk. Barbajuans, a lesser-known Niçoise pastry, are short, crisp bonbons filled with pumpkin and rice, while the local fervour for stuffing vegetables gets a nod in a half-eggplant loaded with a surprisingly light and fresh cargo of pig's head meat under a golden carpet of breadcrumbs and a few leaves of basil. Fougasse, the Niçoise answer to focaccia, arrives hot from the oven, flecked with fennel seeds, swaddled in a folded napkin and accessorised with dollops of house ricotta, tapenade and tomato jam. Splendid.

There are missteps. Even before you step foot in the place, the pointless, useless, deeply unhelpful website is off-putting. I don't think posting a menu online would kill the romance. On the plate, so much salt is scattered over the house take on socca, the large chickpea-flour pancake street snack that will be familiar to any past visitor to the Cours Saleya, that it's easy to give up barely more than a third of the way through. Worse, its bookend at the same meal, an otherwise brilliant little side of grilled dandelion with fine lardons and slivers of gala apple, is overseasoned to a similarly puzzling degree. And clever as it may be to set an egg in the centre of a chicken and pork terrine so that it's still soft-yolked when it's done, it'd be cleverer still to taste the mix to ensure that the dominant flavour wasn't dry thyme. The rich-on-richness of a quenelle of crème fraîche topping a firm chocolate mousse, too, doesn't quite come off, despite the attractive addition of halved green sultana grapes.

It's a large menu, though, and these slips are exceptions, not the rule. Restraint and care elevate the poor old salade Niçoise from a much-abused and misunderstood entrée (enough with the grilled yellowfin, people) to its proper place as a sunny classic. Here it comprises neatly trimmed lengths of green bean, tomato, cucumber, spring onion and pepper in a bowl with preserved tuna, torn black olives and halves of beautifully cooked egg. If you were European-born you'd say the beans were undercooked, and you might quibble amusingly with the choice of vegetables, but otherwise it's nicely proportioned. If the inside skirt of Oakleigh Ranch wagyu is any guide, juicy and charry in all the right places, with chips and the choice of bone marrow or Bearnaise sauces, parsley butter or roast-garlic crème fraîche, the grills are handled with equal confidence.

Elsewhere, there's an inventive freedom that's easy to take to heart. Niland cooks casarecce like it's risotto, stirring it with fish stock, not a little butter and quite a lot of Parmigiano-Reggiano until it's all saucy and emulsified, but the pasta's good and al dente, and then he folds through John Dory roe. Salty, savoury and creamlessly creamy, it probably has about as much to do with Nice as a Monaco Bar has to do with Monaco, but it's clever as hell and twice as good to eat.

Things get more vigorously contemporary with desserts. Niland's wife, Julie, is one of Sydney's most promising young pastry chefs. She doesn't work here, but I somehow feel like Josh would hear about it if the desserts coming out of a kitchen he was heading were less than interesting. At any rate, there's some good stuff going on here. Burnt vanilla meringue with watermelon caramel cream is sweetly inventive, right down to its pickled watermelon rind garnish. Champagne gelée, vanilla ice-cream and chamomile granita proves that, done with a modicum of care, the cascade of textures from ice to ice-cream over jelly is almost a sure thing.

So, what to make of Café Nice circa 2015? Allow me to pause at this juncture, bite my thumb gently, and then puff away a strand of hair that has strayed across my eyes, like an out-take from And God Created Woman. Ah, that's better. Café Nice is - how do you say? - filled with promise. After all, it's on the edges where the interesting stuff usually happens.

Café Nice
Lvl 3, 2 Phillip St, Sydney, NSW
(02) 8248 9600
Open Mon-Fri noon-10pm, Sat 5pm-10pm
Prices Entrées $4.50-$24, main courses $24-$58, desserts $14.50
Vegetarian 11 entrées, two main courses
Noise Noisy
Wheelchair access No
Minus Shambolic service
Plus New vision in the kitchen

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