First published on 1 Jul 2010. Updated on 12 Apr 2011.
Dietmar Sawyer is unstoppable. Having re-opened Berowra Waters Inn in 2007 and added a guesthouse down the river, and recently closed Forty One, he has now opened Ad Lib - the pride of Pymble.
Here, you'll find all the restaurant finesse of Berowra Waters, only in a bistro setting. While you won't find brass railings, specials written in lipstick on old mirrors or the warm golden glow of old lamps (it's a fairly nondescript space) there's all the hustle and bustle of a proper French bistro. The room is typically packed and everyone's having a good time.
The offering is more casual as well as being cheaper, sure, but there's still a high level of service and the food is made with exceptional skill and great produce. Onion soup, thick with tendrils of melted gruyere and topped with a slice of (more) melted gruyere on toast, is brown, glossy and, well, oniony. Porky pucks of ear, trotter and tail are fried and served with a runny sauce gribiche and if you're a complete glutton you might order a couple of fresh-shucked oysters to have on the side. As it is, ordering the soup with a mimosa salad on the side is gut-busting enough. A mimosa salad, in case you're unsure, is a traditional French salad where a boiled egg is grated with the white and yolk separated. Here, though, they cheat a little (or update, if you like) with a slow-cooked egg hiding under a nest of frisée lettuce, bits of fried pork jowl and tiny little crisp croutons.
The duck liver parfait is like eating thick cream on toast. Light and fluffy and served in a teeny little jar with slices of sourdough, it's the best you'll find in town. If you want, there's steak (tartare, sirloin, fillet, rib eye). But there's also the braised chicken thighs - coq au vin style - with big sprigs of chervil, Dutch carrots, pine mushrooms and lardons. If you order sides, this dish is big enough to share between two.
And the sides – oh my, the sides. Go Swiss with the likes of spätzle (an irregularly shaped European style boiled noodle) with fried onions and cheese or crisp shavings of potato rösti. What about a side of buttered tagliatelle or French fries and mayo? The possibilities to carb load are endless. If you haven't actually ruptured your abdominal sheath at this point, why not order dessert? They serve massive quenelles of their dark chocolate mousse tableside out of a giant bowl, drizzled with thick cream, garnished with chocolate wafer straws.
The wine list offers great value. The first page of the list is broken into four different serving sizes from tasters to full bottles with nothing over $60. Of course, you feel you'd like to splash out a little more, flip overleaf for reserve wines.
Service is friendly and skewed towards locals. In fact, don't be surprised if you see chef/owner Dietmar Sawyer on the floor busting a few plate moves himself. Now splitting his time between Berowra and Ad Lib, he's also rumoured to be expanding the guesthouse at Berowra to include a set of tree houses out the back and maybe even a houseboat. Bring it on, we say.
Flinders Inn is your ultimate neighbourhood restaurant: simple, straightforward food with peerless service and a fun wine list. It's perfect for a laidback midweek meal or an early Friday night dinner before you hit the Local Taphouse a few doors down. The look of it is very bistro, down to the mirrors covered in red lippy that advertises the specials and the reasonably priced wine list, much of which is broken up into glasses, mini carafes (250ml), regular carafes (500ml) and bottles. Start with the most excellent rabbit and pork rillettes with toasted Iggy's bread. Mains wise, we're all about the confit duck served with peas, bacon and lettuce braised in pork stock (ask for a spoon or some bread to capture that last bit of sauce and any rogue peas). And we're very keen on going back for the Flinders Inn burger, Frenched up with frites.
Bronte Rd Bistro is owned and run by husband-and-wife team Stewart and Jessica Parsons, with chef Dave Pegrum banging the pans. The food is artfully simple, the wine's cheap and interesting and if you get served by the right people (ie, the Parsonses), you'll have a great time. Sit at the bar - the sunroom doubles as the dining room and gets cramped and loud. If it's warm, grab one of the outside tables. For our buck, the best way to eat here is to order lots of tasting plates and drink the wine list. There's a trend in a lot of restaurants to make you feel like you're being punished by ordering a glass of wine rather than a bottle, but here they make an effort to offer interesting wines by the glass, like the grenache blanc, which at $11 a pop is a very happy proposition indeed.
This sweet little bistro combines classic French in the kitchen and a casual Aussie attitude on the floor thanks to husband-and-wife team Alex (a French chef) and Natasha (an Aussie floor manager) Bourdon. Head through the restaurant straight out to the bar out back for an aperitif - there's Gosset by the glass - or have a cocktail. The restaurant itself is a simple, classically styled room with sturdy wooden chairs, stiff white cloths and comfy banquettes. Try the gnocchi à la Parisienne - not actually gnocchi, it's little puffs of choux pastry and sautéed mushrooms napped in a white truffle mornay. The veal pâté-en-croute (a bit like a terrine, only wrapped in pastry) served at room temperature with pickles and cress is better shared among a few people rather than as a stand-alone entrée. There's a separate bar menu, too, and you can have any of it in the restaurant proper. Sadly, they've taken off the onion soup and the croque monsieur but you can still order the rillettes buns. The food is comforting, the vibe is great, the service fantastic and the wine list inspired. And, best of all, they're open till 2am.
Stepping away from the highy refined French cuisine he was creating as head chef of Bilson's, chef Manu Fieldel is now cooking bistro food. As you'd expect, he does the classics very well, and is a dab hand with the salads such as a perfectly dressed mix of witlof and frisée and a scattering of walnuts topped with a piece of melted goats cheese on toast. The salade landaise (aka confit duck salad) is excellent: a mix of confit duck, breast and foie gras with frisée. It's about the mix of textures - the fall-apart fatty goodness of the confit, the creaminess of the foie gras and the bitterness and crunch from the greens all come together in every bite. And make sure to order the petit pois à la Française on the side. It's a mix of braised lettuce, peas, spring onions and bacon and we'd eat a bowl of it on its own, it's so good. L'etoile is the real deal, down to the French women chain smoking at one of the outside tables. French dishes are cooked here with skill, served with panache and won't break the bank.
Until recently, eating in the Rocks has been limited to either going super-fancy at places like Rockpool and Quay, or doing the 2am stagger into Pancakes on the Rocks for ribs and a crepe. But the addition of Baroque, a very reasonably priced French bistro, has turned the tables. There's a massive outdoor deck where you can take in the air, have a beer and watch the sunset over the Harbour Bridge. Inside, the open space is filled with giant copper orbs hanging from the ceiling and copper facing on the benches. The food is classic bistro fare – braised snails and garlic, boudin noir, steak frites. Baroque also feature $25 plats du jour - a different dish for every day of the week. This restaurant is brought to you by the Charkos family, owners of the Rocks pattisserie La Renaissance - makers of some of the best macarons in town. The sweet little puff balls at Baroque are worth the trip alone. Colourful, with a crisp, glossy outer shell and soft meringuey interior, they come in flavours such as rose-scented cream, salty caramel and olive oil and vanilla.
Merivale have two more bistros in the offing, coming your way in August. First off the rank is Bistrode CBD, with Bistrode's Jeremy Strode at the helm. Lauren Murdoch will be stepping out of the kitchen at Ash Street to cook at Pastisse, which will be located across the way in the ivy complex. And if that's still not enough, check out the newly opened Garden Brasserie in Neutral Bay, right next door to Blue Plate Bar and Grill.
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