Haute vegetarian honesty
Claim to fame: Next-generation plant-based dining
Reason to go: Native Australian flora like you’ve never eaten it before
Look out for: An equally intriguing drinks program
Joey Astorga has a fine grasp of what St. John chef Fergus Henderson likes to call the “gnyah factor”. As closely as we can define it, this gnyah factor is that fillip that takes a dish from the good to the great; the pickled walnut that makes the potted beef sing; the careful scattering of capers in the parsley and shallot salad that confirms the place of St. John’s bone marrow salad in the pantheon of the best dishes of the last century. For Joey Astorga, though, there’s no beef, no marrow and no bones. Paperbark, named for a spongy-trunked melaleuca growing just beyond the restaurant windows, leaves the animal kingdom entirely. But it’s a cuisine of celebration, not deprivation––a truly swingin’ safari.
Capers play their part here too, bringing the gnyah to smoked celeriac with potato crisp. It’s part of an opening salvo of snacks that quickly establishes Paperbark’s bona fides.
The happy diner takes smoky flanges of mushroom, threaded on a twig, and swipes them through a macadamia cream, chomps a pumpkin and carrot tostada leavened with wattleseed, and delves into a tomato and tofu mole, marveling at the strawberry flavor of a unique eucalypt that Australians, laconic to a fault, call “strawberry gum”.
And then that most elegant and complex of vegan foods: bread. Astorga has a close connection with Iggy’s Bread, a Sydney sourdough specialist that could well lay claim to baking the best loaves in the state, if not the nation. Served with fresh green Alto virgin olive oil, it holds center-plate with gusto before ceding the table to the likes of celtuce, char-grilled with pak choy, given bursts of saline freshness with karkalla, a beach plant, and set on puffed black rice and a lemon aspen cream.
The setting might not be so perfectly lush as the cuisine––Paperbark sits in the bottom of a newish apartment building looking out onto a suburban street, and the room is pretty raw. But the passion for the food, the belief in its essential deliciousness and goodness, radiates from the kitchen to the floor to the diner in a powerful wave.