Playing with Fire
Claim to fame: The Aussie barbecue goes way (way) upmarket
Reason to go: One of the world’s great fire cooks in his element
To look out for: Off-carte treats and rarities on the chef’s menu
If barbecuing is a national obsession bordering on religious observance here in Australia, then grill marks might be said to represent a sort of iconography. Which almost makes Lennox Hastie an apostate of the Brotherhood of Fire. Though his kitchen is powered almost entirely by coals (he makes concessions to electricity for such trifles as refrigeration, exhaust and lighting) Hastie considers the appearance of grill marks a failing on the part of the chef. For him, the place of fire in the kitchen is not to brand or forcefully burn its stamp on food, rather he sees it as a tool to coax the essence from ingredients and give them a subtle underline.
And so while the name and the very scent of the place is about the flame, and the menu opens with a list of the wood types used on that specific day (apple, cherry, grapevines, almond, peach, ironbark, among others) Firedoor, with its custom ovens, is a temple dedicated as much to fine ingredients as it is to the spark itself. Hastie is brutally demanding with his suppliers, yet remarkably gentle with what they provide. Duck hearts are rendered a rich caramel by the coals, they’re complemented with a sour cherry ketchup and petals of grilled celeriac, while potatoes roasted in tallow find a fine foil in crème fraîche and a shaving of cured mullet roe.
Hastie mastered his craft in the Basque country, working for years alongside Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri, the asador in Axpe that is considered Europe’s pre-eminent fire-driven restaurant. In Sydney he might not have Iberian elvers or gooseneck barnacles at his disposal, but he makes a luxury of local ingredients, particularly seafood. The proteins in sand whiting are barely set, the flavor of the fish standing clear and clean against a backdrop of zucchini and confit lemon. Mackerel can take more robust treatment, smoked with hay, and teamed with the assertive aromas of horseradish and bagnet vert, the northern Italian salsa powered by parsley, capers and anchovies.
But let’s talk about the beef. Running your eye down the menu, one line, bookended by two numbers, may jump out. On the left is the number 242, which is how many days of dry-ageing the rib of beef has seen to date, while on the right is 167, which is how many dollars a piece of said rib will cost you. Such extreme ageing brings serious complexity to the flavor of the meat, Hastie takes care to serve the precious beef in all its glory, cutting the steaks to order on the bandsaw, then carefully grilling them to an even mahogany color, without a trace of bitter blackening. It’s far from cheap but surely you can skimp on other things.
Service is competent and the wine list fitting, with a gentle lean towards the artisanal and non-interventionist. The room, meanwhile, which Hastie did plenty of work on himself, is appropriately decked out in timber and steel, with fine polish applied to the otherwise rough-hewn materials when and where comfort is called for.