New restaurants are popping up in Sydney like flowers in Spring, and it really takes a lot to make an impression. You’ll need vision, creativity, skill and experience. Hunger, and not just on the part of the diner.
And you know what? New restaurant/bar Dragoncello in Surry Hills are serving up just that.
Operating with just a team totalling just four people – two in the kitchen and two in the front of house – Owner and Head Chef Roy McVeigh’s dreams, tears and sweat of the past three years have come into fruition in the form of a cozy eatery in a corner of Surry Hills, with a rustic interior and professional and personable staff. There is a sense of drive infused into the team, and they are sure eager to impress.
Perry, our waiter, takes our orders efficiently – it always amazes me when they don’t need to write things down! – and then Stuart (Sommalier, bartender and restaurant manager) whips us up a special not-on-the-menu cocktail.
Woooo! Not on the menu! We must be special.
The first mouthful carries the citrusy freshness of orange, and then the complex mix of spices from the house-made apricot syrup – traces of vanilla, star anise, coriander seeds – and juniper notes of the cucumber infused gin.
Then comes an amuse bouche – a complimentary first course to tantalise the tastebuds and whet your appetite – of fish head curry with apple foam. Fancy, like an Iggy Azalea song! You couldn’t taste the apple, as such, but it brought a touch of sweetness to an aromatic curry. When asked about why he decided to pair the two flavours, Chef Roy said that it was because there was a concern that the curry would be too strong as an opener, and the sweetness was meant to temper the spices and make it slightly less confronting as an amuse bouche.
I even got a peak into how the foam was made! Chef Roy mixes soy lecithin into apple juice – rather than the usual gelatine which can produce a more unstable foam – and uses a fish pump (!!) to create even bubbles that are stable and efficient enough to allow them to see them through a whole service!
It was then time for the food!
Of the smaller bites, the Smoked Eel Croquettes and Morcilla were true standouts for me.
The croquettes were the right amount of not-fall-apart-but-not-too-starchy (as some croquettes are wont to be), and I really liked the replacement of egg wash and breadcrumbs – which can create a shell so sturdy that it can stand on its own – with a roll in Mayo and potato flakes, creating a seamless bite between crunchy to smooth.
The Morcilla – which is another name for black pudding – was served less as a sausage, and more as, well, a pudding. A mixture of blood, backfat (think: bacon on steroids), and apple are cooked to 80C sous vide, which produced the texture of thick custard. Now black pudding is a bit of a hit and miss with some people, but I’m a big fan, so I thoroughly enjoyed this take on it. The aniseed flavours from the fennel also added lilting high notes through each bite, preventing it from being rich and stodgy and boring.
Beef Flank has always been a lean, rather unforgiving cut of meat. With the propensity to have the texture of leather, it requires a lot of love and care to make it enjoyable. Here, it’s cooked sous vide – which totally makes sense since other methods, while tenderising the muscle tissue, would not provide the moisture retention that cooking it in a vaccuum-sealed bag would give you – giving you relatively moist meat, with added moisture provided by the preserves, sauce and peas. To be honest, I didn’t really notice what the caramelised nori adds to the mouthful besides a visually stunning garnish, but then again, I don’t know if I would notice it if it wasn’t there.
Instead of dessert, we opted for cheese. I know, shock horror right? But these weren’t just stock standard cheese plates! No slapping cheese and fruit on a board here.
While the cheddar was Sam’s favourite – it certainly played up the umami flavours with Vegemite and a hard cheese – I thought the Brie had way more finesse and sophistication. i.e I couldn’t just look at it and imagine how I would make this at home.
Creamy Brie is placed on a warmed plate, and topped with hot salty almonds and an ice-cold almond granita, and surrounded in a pool of house-made dandelion syrup. Three different textures and three different temperatures, all in the one mouthful, creating a symphony of flavours that were delicious to the very last bite.
And as if the luscious cheese dishes weren’t enough, we were given some Onion Brioche to go with it. The brioche – which I always thought of as a cakey bread enriched with egg yolks and butter – had a more invitingly crumbly texture, and I just love the softness and aroma that the caramelised onions provide. And quietly in the background, served as a mere condiment, was a grassy pine needle infused oil for you to dip the bread into, which was Chef Roy’s take on the grassy notes of a good quality olive oil.
And to finish, Housemade Gunmy Candy. With the texture of Turkish delight and light minty flavour, this was a nice way to finish off the meal.
As a food science nerd, I really really appreciated Chef Roy’s efforts in trying to create – maybe no recipe is original anymore, but he at least creates a rather unique eating experience.
It felt very “fine dining”, belying the location and smart casual service style. Not surprising, since Chef Roy has a long cooking history peppered with establishments like Berowra Waters Inn and Bennelong. But the careful deliberate nature of fine dining was here tempered with a profound knowledge in foraging, which he honed at Laguna Keys, where there were apparently two goals: forage to cut food costs, and win awards to keep the customers coming in. This temperance keeps the dining experience comfortable, and doesn’t put the pressure on the diner to behave as “classy” as fine dining establishments demand.
There were some elements to the food that I questioned the necessity of: the dandelion syrup in the Brie, for example. I know it needed sweetness to balance the plate, but it wasn’t as unique a flavour as say, elderflower, and I still walked away not really understanding what dandelion really tasted like. Could it have been a lesser syrup and escaped my notice? Sure, but that really could be my palatte needing more education.
But nitpicking aside, it was really just a delicious experience. I may have my favourites, but one thing I really noticed was that there wasn’t a dish I would emphatically tell people not to order, which is huge considering I tasted most of the menu.
Insatiable Munchies dined as guests of Dragoncello.