Pei Modern was on my list of restaurants I wanted to visit at some point in Melbourne, and then one conveniently opened in Sydney! Too kind. We found the perfect excuse to visit: before seeing Damon Albarn play at the Opera House, as the Sydney restaurant is located in the Four Seasons Hotel at the bottom of George Street/ beginning of The Rocks, only 10 minutes’ walk from where we needed to end up.
We started with glasses of lovely Clover Hill sparkles from Tasmania, then a perfect pair of salty-sweet Clyde River rock oysters. Remember folks: fizz first, oysters second, as lemon or vinaigrette will ruin your champers-appreciating palate. The alternative is champagne plus bread and butter plus un-dressed oysters. I went for this option. The wood-fired sourdough was extremely good – one of the sourest sourdoughs I’ve had in a while, with a Seriously Chewy Crust™. I also liked the presentation in the little hessian bread sock. The waitstaff obliged us with a second sockful.
We stayed with seafood for our next two starters: house-smoked kingfish (“ham of the sea”) and salt cod croquettes. The fish really did taste like ham, and I wish I could remember what the fine strips of refreshing vegetable were. Or fruit? Perhaps watermelon rind? Lightly pickled? I’m certain it wasn’t the more obvious answer of cucumber. And I’ve never met a salt cod croquette (nor a blob of aïoli) I didn’t like, but Pei’s were memorable for two reasons: the semolina-dusted exterior, and the grated potato insides. Instead of just being tasty salty fried mush, they had two distinct and pleasing textures.
Our last shared starter was, for me, the least successful due to its presentation. To be fair, the “beetroots, fig and braised mustard seeds” did not call itself a salad, but once you add salad leaves to something (here, large folds of radicchio) it really needs to be more… salad-y. This was an awkward dish to eat, as everything was too big and had to be sliced and divided so you could get a mouthful of the smokey beets (regular and mellow yellow) and the bitter radicchio and a sweet contrast of fig.
The butter lettuce with chardonnay vinaigrette was more manageable, mouthful-wise. Butter lettuce is a bit démodé but I love it, and it was nice to have such a simple side with our very flavour-packed mains. Hubby had the “Snapper, old-fashioned celery, currants and verjuice” and I chose the “Casarecce, chicken dumplings and reggiano”. Our waiter seemed very concerned about my choice and was anxious to ensure I knew what casarecce was. I said yes, it’s a hand-rolled pasta, isn’t it? Little tubes with a twist? Oh yes, it’s very rich though – we cook the pasta in broth so it’s very rich. It’s very rich with the broth. Rich. Broth. I assured him I was fine to eat pasta cooked in broth, and was somewhat confused by his concern. Did I look like some delicate waif who couldn’t handle anything more than a butter leaf salad? (Does he not read my blog?) And does he warn everyone, or just skinny girls? Should I be offended? Also what the hell is in this “rich broth” to make it such a concern?
See picture below:
The broth wasn’t the issue. It was the OFFAL our anxious waiter somehow completely failed to mention! Hand-rolled pasta infused with chicken stock; beautifully light chicken meatballs; lovely bitey parmigiano reggiano melting into the broth; and…. kidneys. And possibly also ickle chicken hearts. And maybe even some liver in the meatballs: they had a silky smoothness very much like fine pâté or liver parfait.
Thankfully I don’t have a problem with most offal (I draw the line at tripe) as long as it’s not from an animal I don’t eat. I was perfectly happy to eat more of the working parts of my feathered friend, but perhaps listing said parts on the menu would be helpful if the waiters are going to get all funny about it. There’s quite a difference between “This dish is rich because we cook the pasta in broth” and “This dish is rich because it’s full of offal“! It also doesn’t help that Hubby and I are halfway through series 2 of ‘Hannibal’, so offal has more sinister connotations to me at present!
Surprises aside, it was an incredibly good dish and I would order it again in an instant. It was a very generous serving, too: Hubby had several bites and I still had plenty. And yes, it was rich.
No surprises, offal or otherwise, came with Hubby’s snapper, though I never did find out what “old-fashioned celery” was. This dish was also a winner, and the portion of fish was larger than my photo makes it seem. The finely diced and very lightly cooked celery had just the right contrast of texture to the fish without being too jarringly crunchy, and the sweet and sour elements of the dish were in perfect alignment. Loved the pretty little edible flowers too!
For pudding we shared the much-anticipated sorrel sorbet with house-made honeycomb, which my friend Lee Tran Lam had instagrammed the week before and I had been desiring ever since. It was as delightful as expected: chlorophyllically refreshing sorbet (acidic hints of kiwi fruit too) with a smokey sweet honeycomb counterpoint. It reminded me of my two favourite green cocktails ever – Cazador’s ‘Peahead’ (Newcastle) and Aberdeen Street Social’s ‘Pealini’ (Hong Kong) – but in frozen form. More unusual green treats in 2015, please!
And to accompany our lovely meal and obviously working well with all the fishy dishes was a young bottle of Domain de Bellevue muscadet. Spritzy, minerally, superdry: muscadet is the Italian-y French white I drink when I’m not drinking Italian whites!
Pei Modern Sydney is a strange contradiction: an inner city foodie’s dream inside a chain hotel at the tourist end of town. The Melbourne one is similarly unhip in its location, underneath the Sofitel at Collins Place. The menu screams converted industrial space, or an art deco ex- bank. Not “opposite Jackson’s On George and in a carpeted hotel lobby”. But it was so nice to discover somewhere cool to go in town for change, and doubly conveniently en route to our concert. And apart from the failure to disclose offal, the waitstaff were attentive, helpful and obliging. We had a cocktail afterwards at Grain Bar at the front of the hotel – also an unexpectedly cool discovery.
I highly recommend you find an excuse to try Pei Modern. And the sorrel sorbet is imperative!