Monday, January 23, 2012

Review - The Duke Bistro

What do you get when you cross two passionate young gun chefs, a landmark inner city hotel, a dining room with a late night, saloon type vibe and a menu with an irreverent, creative bent? You get The Duke Bistro in Darlinghurst -  and a meal that will have your tastebuds doing a backflip and your dining companions discussing when you can come back for more, before you have even finished the dessert. Chefs Thomas Lim (ex Tetsuya's) and Mitch Orr (ex Sepia and the 2010 Young Chef of the Year) have been in residence upstairs at the Flinders Hotel for over a year now and last week I finally got around to paying them a visit.

Walking into The Flinders called to mind the years that I lived just around the corner in the early 90's. I spent many an hour in the bar downstairs, dancing, partying, getting up to no good with the rest of the neighbourhood and staying way after any sensible person should have gone home! It was frequently daylight when you would stumble out onto the footpath looking a whole lot less glamourous than when you stepped in! Now, here I was a decade later, heading up the narrow stairs to enjoy a very grown up and sedate weeknight dinner with friends. Funnily enough, one of my dining companions on the night was my partner in crime back in the Flinders party days - yes, I'm looking at you Mark. My how things have changed!

I was very relieved to discover that The Duke has not succumed to the trend of - let's completely gut an old building and fill it with stainless steel, pale hardwood, uncomfortable chairs and skinny jean wearing hipster waiters, as far as the eye can see. When you enter the dining room, you are met with an inviting, intimate and not at all up itself space that makes you want to settle in for the long haul. I loved the dark green walls and the saloon like sensibility of the place. The wait staff were fantastic - welcoming, efficient and extremely knowlegable about the menu.

The Menu

We started with a cocktail from the short and sharp cocktail menu - mixed and served with real attention to detail (lovely burnt orange rind rimmed glasses, created at the table by our waiter). Enjoying our aperitif, there was much discussion amongst the six of us about which dishes we were going to choose. All of dishes on the menu are designed for sharing and we settled on 12 choices, enlisting the help of our waiter to make sure we had a nice cross section of what was on offer. The menu boasts a great range of interesting choices, including plenty for the vegetarians.

The Duke Dining Room

One of the things that had drawn me to The Duke was the search something different in a city where so much of what is on offer dining wise is same, same, same. So many menus seem to be clones of each other, and I was delighted with the creativity of the flavour combinations that we were treated to. This the kind of food I like, the way I like to eat it.

Water Spinach, Potato, Taleggio/ Spanner Crab Gravy with Butter Buns/ Fried Chicken Wings with Charred Scallions and Hot Sauce 

We all agreed that there wasn't a dud dish amongst our selections - some were more complicated than others, some were simplicity itself, but the one thing they all had in common was top notch ingredients and great presentation.

Pork Jowl and Apple Pancakes / Bonito, Lardo, Pumpkin, Coffee

Stand out dishes for me on the night were the Spanner Crab Gravy with Butter Buns - A spanner crab reduction with a beautiful flavour you could hardly believe, served with Asian style butter buns to soak up all the sauce. The Fregola, Corn and Cornbread was to die for - the cornbread as light and airy as an Angel Food Cake and a whole lot tastier! The nightly special - Pork Jowl Pancakes, served with caramelised apple and curry mayonnaise was fantastic. Great textures, the succulent pig cheek cooked to perfection.

Fregola, Corn and Cornbread

For me though, the dish of the night was the Bonito, Lardo, Pumpkin and Coffee combination. Bonito fish cooked rare, served with a rich, velvety pumpkin puree, crispy pork and a touch of earthy ground coffee that took the dish from voluptuous and satisfying to Va Va Voom!!!!! Five shiny gold starts for that one.

Peas, Ammato and Melon

Specialties of house are the very moreish crispy fried chicken wings (which manage to be super crisp on the outside but succulent on the inside) served with lip smacking scallions and your own bottle of hot sauce - and the steamed radishes in dashi butter, served with freshly baked sourdough rolls to soak up all the delicious flavoured butter. Delicious.

Blade Cap of Beef  with Green Olive and Lemon

Radish with Dashi Butter

Char Siu Pork Neck, Gai Lan, Black Sesame and Garlic Shoot

Rainbow Trout and Grapes

For dessert, the six of us shared a plate of the descriptively named Milk,Milk,Milk - which is in fact a selection of Meringue, Caramelised Milk Skin, Dulce de Leche and Panna Cotta. Oh Mama! A riot of texture and taste that had us clutching our spoons as our eyes rolled back in our heads. What a way to end what was an exceptional meal.

Milk, Milk, Milk
(Meringue, Caramelised Milk Skin, Dulce de Leche, Panna Cotta)

We had a fantastic experience at The Duke, and we will definitely be returning soon (I want more of that Bonito dish!!) but this quirky bistro is certainly not going to appeal to everyone. You only have to look at the various reviews online to see that people either adore it - or despise it - with nothing much in between. If you aren't into the sharing dishes thing, are seeking the unchallenging or the familiar, or rate a meal on how huge the serving is, then this place is not for you. A common criticism I read was small serving size - but I think these people miss the point.  The idea of the entree sized sharing plates are to have a taste of a variety of dishes - it is never meant to be a whole meal. Anyone expecting otherwise will be undoubtedly disappointed. For me, The Duke is a breath of fresh air in the Sydney restaurant scene.

The bill for the six of us came to about $70 each, which included cocktails and wine. Given the quality of the menu and the high standard of the experience, it was value for money as far as I'm concerned. These guys have really got it right - I'm only kicking myself that I took so long to venture up those stairs to that green dining room! If you live in Sydney, I suggest that you pay them a visit. Immediately.

You will find The Duke Bistro upstairs at The Flinders Hotel -  63 Flinders Street Darlinghurst/Surry Hills. They are open from Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm until late. For reservations phone 9332 3180. Check out their website for latest menus, photos and their blog


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