There has been a renaissance of late, of young chefs stepping out from behind the shadows of more illustrious and visible chefs and embarking on their own ventures. Sixpenny is the first restaurant for chefs Daniel Puskas and James Parry, and they’ve brought in pastry chef Julie Niland. Together, the trio’s CVs sounds like a gastronomic wishlist with local hatted restaurants Oscillate Wildly, Sepia, Tetsuya’s, Marque, Rockpool amongst those represented; and Noma, Mugaritz, Fat Duck, Alinea and Waterside Inn amongst their international 3 Michelin starred stints.
I’ve been wanting to try Sixpenny since I learned about it’s imminent opening at the SIFF dinner: The Chef, The Young Chefs and The Chemist last October, an event that Daniel Puskas was involved in. It was originally slated to open in December, but a few delays saw the opening eventually occur in March. Not that I’m complaining as it was conveniently close to my birthday.
Sixpenny is the latest in a string of restaurants to feature it’s own kitchen garden, undoubtedly, one of the most prominent restaurant trends hitting the east coast of Australia this year. However, the little “backyard plot” behind the restaurant is only their local larder, they have a more serious larder on Parry’s in-laws’ land in Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands which is used to produce fresh ingredients and doubles as a experimental lab for the restaurant menu. These gardens help support the restaurant’s laudable focus in putting local, sustainable produce in the spotlight and as we discovered, both the food and wine menus were overwhelmingly localised. Speaking of menus, the restaurant only offers a six or eight course matched wine degustation, but given we were celebrating my birthday, we of course opted for the whole hog eight courses with matched wines.
We’re offered bread to start and are introduced to “Bob”, the (asexual) sourdough mother that started in the Oscillate Wildly kitchens where Parry met Puskas. More intriguingly, it is brought to us by the softly spoken Puskas himself. Chefs making appearances in the dining room is by no means a new invention, but generally you might be able to reliably employ a loud, boisterous, larger than life character stereotype. Puskas informs us that to help the wait staff, he, Parry and pastry chef Julie Niland will each take turns bringing out dishes and explaining their construction. As he leaves us with the bread, he leaves the Co-pilot and I musing about how the simple act of shedding waitstaff norms and coming into the dining room the way these chefs do, effectively allows the diner to personalise the food on their plates with the chefs in the kitchen and immediately moves them from shadow to spotlight. Not only does this satisfy chef groupies keen to see the faces behind the food, but psychologically, I imagine it’s very hard to be a critic when you’ve just connected the previously largely anonymous plate in front of you with a warm, smiling person. Whether or not it’s planned and considered, it’s a deft and clever stroke of branding for each individual chef and a brilliant in-house PR strategy.
But back to Bob – or rather, Bob’s son. The bread is deservedly served simply with decadent mascarpone butter and savoured slowly whilst we peruse the menu with interest.
The first offering on the menu was an eclectically named hodge podge of unlikely bedfellows – “garden pickles, rye bread, malt chips, duck tongue, knuckle sandwich” – sounds like an unfortunate day at school with a not so happy ending. It was however a teasing glimpse into talent in the kitchen – clever with a hint of cheek.
The first to challenge my expectations were the pickles – they weren’t. An ever so subtly pickled selection of colourful garden vegetables were presented to us, a seemingly carelessly arranged heap of colourful daylily petals and stamens, sweet spring onion shoots, tiny melons, radishes and rhubarb. I’d expected from the description that perhaps we’d get something like Japanese pickles (tsukemono) but the flavours are sweet, fresh and unadulterated. Accompanying the pickles are creamy virgin jersey butter smeared dark squares of rye bread.
The wafer thin malt chips also challenged my expectations. They were wafer thin kipfler potato slivers petrified to a sulking crisp in an acid bath of malt vinegar. The crisps made my lips tingle and pickle on prolonged contact and the volatile malt vinegar fumes released with each bite almost made my breath catch – and that is not a hyperbole, “tangy” would be an irresponsible understatement. Yet despite their pungency, I couldn’t resist shovelling in one after another of the potent chips as this is the salt and vinegar chip connoisseur’s pinnacle – the holy grail for acidophiles.
The duck tongue I was looking forward to as I like the juxtaposed textures of crunchy cartilage sheathed in soft muscle. The warm duck tongue was served with a crispy seared crust on a baby gem lettuce leaf – just delightful. But the appreciation might be a cultural thing as the Co-Pilot certainly grimaced at first the thought, then the taste of it. He didn’t like the idea of a slimy duck’s tongue in his mouth tangoing with his tongue. Well, described that way, neither do I – but who actually personifies their food like that?! The knuckle sandwich chaser however was quickly wolfed down to quiet moans of appreciation: soft, flavoured with apple jelly on rich, buttery brioche mini toasts.
The menu description of “Cheddar cheese and onions” sounds like the making of a hardy ploughman’s lunch, but what arrived was a far more subtle and delicate species. Puskas brings this course to us and describes the process of creation: cheddar cheese is boiled to create a savoury broth and to encourage the rich cheese essence aromas to rise to the surface in the oils and fats. These oils are collected, concentrated and the salts toasted. The onion shells are then blanched in the cheese water and dressed in the concentrated cheese essence. The effect more subtle than we’d expected but still appreciated. Accompanying it is a Hunter Valley semillion, surprisingly fruity match with remarkable toffee apple aromas.
Surprises are always welcome, especially on birthdays and the next course is a surprise complimentary unnamed course which I’ve dubbed cheese and garden greens. A sufficiently low key name for a dish disguised as just that. Featured were young greens from their plot in Bowral: baby gem lettuce leaves, tiny day lily buds that were pickled into caper-like vinegary bursts and sweet flavourful brown fennel. Bringing the dish together was the cheese, also made on their Bowral property. Puskas tells us that Jersey cow milk is curdled using thistle rennet, a naturally occuring herbal enzyme that induces curdling and precipitation of the milk proteins to form the cheese. The resulting cheese is just precipitated and very soft, delicately floral and absolutely not like any cheese I’ve had before. Like a delicately perfumed soya bean curd mixed with ricotta. I have to admit, I was just a tad anxious when thistle curdled cheese was mentioned. It’s not the first I’ve had such a cheese – and when we were served Nida, a Portuguese thistle curdled cheese at Per Se, I certainly didn’t enjoy that. It was a hard, squeaky, smelly cheese and the Sixpenny offering couldn’t have been more different.
Crab is a permanent birthday fixture – or at least, I have demanded crab to feature on my birthday menu over the last few years and to my delighted surprise, every year my family seems to acquiesce. The dish I was most looking forward to was the crab, silky macadamia and camomile, and for what it lacked in the looks department, it certainly didn’t disappoint in taste.
Fine slivers of mud crab flesh were bathed in a creamy and impossibly smooth porridge of macadamia cream, dotted with the occasional nut nugget. It was scented with fresh camomile, which imparts a taste not dissimilar to chrysanthemum leaves and mingles riotously well with the crab and nutty flavours. A zingy, acidic Chardonnay serves to lift the flavours. Parry explains that to achieve the smooth texture and flavour of the macadamia paste, the macadamias were ground to a fine powder before being made into smooth paste. The nuts themselves were sourced from his in-laws’ tree but they were sadly in short supply as they have to fight the rats for it. The Co-pilot and I perked up at the mention of rats and nodded maniacally in complete understanding. That’s exactly what our Nonno complains about – but given we’ve never seen the rats, and he seems more than capable of complaining to the local council about them, we’ve dutifully ignored him. Perhaps there is some truth to Nonno’s stories after all..
A roasted sweet potato came next, wrapped in jacket of its own leaves and swimming in frothy pool of whey, possibly masquerading as a wannabe manta ray. Hiding in the frothy depths were crumbled pearls of John Dory roe that gave an ever so subtle fishiness to the dish.
The roes must have been a teaser for the next dish – snapper that came blanketed with a nutty, creamy pumpkin seed cream; accompanied by soft buttery mounds of tender leeks and piles of ground, roasted salted pumpkin seeds. The aroma was mouthwatering and had us immediately digging in before realising we hadn’t “blessed” this dish with a photo, hence the focus on the foreground and perhaps you can see the hastily patched up background. The flavours were very complimentary – and the roasted salted pumpkin seeds a stroke of genius – like a flavour infused nutty, mealy, umami packed gourmet salt.
Naturally following the fish was meat course which consisted of hangar steak, seared on the outside and sweet, tender and rare within. It was simply seasoned to allow the flavour of the steak to sing – and served with “mustard” in the form of a dark green puddle made from mustard leaves. A smoky cabbage cream completed the picture. Served with a rich, spicy zinfandel nebbiolo.
A palate cleanser arrives to prepare our tastebuds for dessert and we’re told it’s meyer lemon with candied peel. Meyer lemons have a higher sugar content compared to usual lemon varieties and often feature in desserts and lemonades. That might have been a red herring in my mind as I totally ignored the menu description of “sour lemon with citrus leaves” and took a big bite. Taken by surprise, my lips retreated momentarily back to my spine, but once acclimatised to the acidity, it was cool and refreshing. The prolific use of micro herbs might have been a bit out of place in this course – they didn’t add any flavour for me. Bizarrely, the palate cleanser reactivated all the bitter notes in the nebbiolo with long, drawn out quinine aftertastes.
Another complimentary course was delivered before the official set desserts – it looked not dissimilar to stuffed zucchini flowers – day lily buds stuffed with chamomile ice cream and drizzled with native bee honey. We didn’t know what to expect of the flavour so went in with an open mind, and were surprised by both the flavour and texture. The flavour of the day lily was not as herbaceous as expected, but mild and sweet – somewhere between cucumber and zucchini with a texture not unlike a non-mucilaginous okra. The chamomile enhanced the floral notes and sweetened with the native Australian bee honey harvested from the restaurant’s own bee hive out the back. Day lillies aren’t foreign to chinese cuisine, dried buds and stamens called “golden needles” are often used in vegetarian stir fries and when eaten that way, I am far from impressed. They are chewy and sour. Having the day lillies fresh was a revelation.
Pastry chef Niland brought us the sweet courses. The dessert wine was late harvest botrytis sauvignon blanc – which on its own was short and fleeting on the palate and a little watery. But paired with the honey mead sorbet sitting in a inky black pool of cocoa consomme – it made total sense. It was a cacophony of complex flavours from the sweetness of honey to pungent mead and the bitter-sweetness of cocoa. It was light, smooth and very intriguing.
The next dessert course was more traditionally rich and buttery. We were presented with jersey milk icecream spiked with shards of frozen cookie dough and peppered with bursts of colour from vibrant salvia flowers. This was drizzled with hot, molten burnt butter at the table which hardened upon contact with the cool ice cream. Unctuous, rich, mouth filling are all appropriate descriptors here. That jersey milk ice cream was impossibly smooth – as though they’d pushed it through a microfilter. Without being derogatory – it was a smooth as soft serve but infinitely better.
To finish we were offered teas of which I opted for a melaleuca tea (foraged from a close neighbourhood source) and the Co-pilot for a peppermint tea. To accompany our teas was the Chef’s cookie jar consisting of a selection of miniature Australian favourites including native ginger chocolates, kingstons, monte carlos, lamingtons and ginger snaps.
To complete our experience, we took a tour of the backyard kitchen garden with Chef Jimmy Parry who showed us a host of plants just starting to establish themselves including day lilies, salvia plants, herbs and greens. There was a makeshift hothouse that housed row upon row of microherbs – many that we’d seen featured and consumed in our courses; a tiny beehive housing Australian native bees. Parry spoke of collecting foraged and harvested ingredients and herbs during his training at Mugaritz and Noma and during that time became familiar with the latin names of the ingredients. Upon his return to Australia and when starting the Sixpenny venture with Puskas, he decided to find and source the ingredients so he could replicate a similar appreciation and access to fresh and seriously local ingredients. As he spoke, there was an undeniable sense of pride and joy in his garden project and a productive, fruitful project it was with a steady stream of chefs wearing a continuous path between kitchen and garden.
Sixpenny was a surprising collection of juxtapositions: fine dining in low key suburban Stanmore; elements of global trends and techniques showcased using home grown, foraged, and sustainable local ingredients; two young chefs that are softly spoken and down to earth yet eager and confident; and chefs that connect the kitchen to the output in the dining room. The players behind the scene are palpably proud of their work, but they aren’t vocal or extroverted. It is a fine balance of quiet and confident and we leave with a distinct impression that there’s more bite than bark at Sixpenny. And thanks to our experience there, the Co-pilot now catches me looking thoughtfully at the neighbourhood day lillies and peering up at melaleuca trees. I wonder how my neighbours would feel about me taking up community foraging..
83 Percival Road Stanmore
Open for lunch Sat and Sun from noon; dinner Wed to Sat from 6pm
Tel: +61 2 9576 6666