Former Claude’s chef Chui Lee Luk pops up in the Berta kitchen for a limited run
Here at Time Out HQ, we're enormous fans of Berta, the regional Italian kitchen tucked away on the city's fringes. We like it so much, in fact, that we awarded O Tama Carey our Chef of the Year gong at our annual Food Awards ceremony last year.
Now Carey has succumbed to the travel bug. And taking her place behind the burners – but only until April – is Chui Lee Luk, the French-trained chef famous for her ten-year tenure at Claude's. Berta has been reassuringly consistent since it opened four years ago, so Lee Luk's cameo has us curious to see how what will be coming out of the kitchen under her watch.
As at its sister bar/restaurants 121BC and Vini, the prices here aren’t ludicrous, the service is warm and the interior cool – all hard edges, rough render and bronze detailing, with a view onto a laneway wall of graffiti commissioned by owner Andrew Cibej. It isn’t, however, painfully cool – the crowd is a mixed bag of bright young things, business types and people doing date night right.
The menu changes daily and is designed to share – expect lots of small plates, one or two pastas and four larger mains with at least one catering to our vegetarian friends. Kick things off with the kingfish. A generous scattering of chilli and the umami hit of bottarga heightens the buttery flavour of the fish. Chicken liver pâté is rich and hearty, and is served with tiny slivers of green almond, which don’t add much, and sticky/sweet Seville orange marmalade, which overpowers. The pâté is delicious, but the dish needs acid – something as simple as a pile of cornichons would have balanced things out. Here’s cheers to the simple pleasures of after-hours picnic fare, like two plump little rounds of milky burrata on thin slices of toasted house-made malt sourdough with finely sliced cabbage and a fat dollop of mushroom purée. We’d only ask for a touch more seasoning to do true justice to the quality of the produce.
The big plates land quickly – great if you’re pressed for time, but not ideal if you want to take a beat between flavours. Braised fennel and ricotta-filled pasta shaped like old-fashioned lolly wrappers gets tossed through a sumac-infused butter that feels like lightning-fuelled sherbet on the tongue – it’s carbs with spark. Roast duck helps justify its $45 price tag with accompaniments of rare, luxe rock samphire (also known as sea asparagus and not to be confused with its cheaper cousin, marsh samphire) and Lombardo peppers.The former add texture and fragrance, the latter a hint of heat, crunch and grassiness.
The affordable, all-Italian wine list changes frequently and is written, like the desserts, on a giant chalkboard. With most wines available by the glass and ranging anywhere from $11 to $17, we suggest you listen to the waiters’ recommendations – they know their grapes. We were advised to try the red 2013 frappato from Sicily's Cos to take us through the meal, and it was perfect – the delicate, floral accents complemented both the rich duck and buttery pasta.
For dessert, keep things simple with a palate-cleansing sorbetti. The sour orange leaf sorbet balances the richness of everything that preceded it in one fell stroke.
Lee Luk is shaking the pans at Berta for a short time. So to see what one of Sydney’s great chefs can do when the long-term shackles are off, you should book a table sharpish. The atmosphere is buzzing, the fare is superb, and it’ll come to an end all too soon. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.