Chef Daniel Mulligan has found his feet and spread his wings at The Welcome Hotel, in Ajò Italian Restaurant & Dining Room.
Lunchtime in autumn, and the second of the dining rooms, the covered courtyard is airy and light. It's a good time for rosé, and unlike many other venues there are not none or just one, but three rosés on offer by the glass. As a rosé lover, I'm off to a terrific start. I choose A. Retief 2013 and I'm then surprised that we can order a (two and a half glass) carafe.
I really had trouble choosing from the menu, although it is well sized for easy selection: five starters, plus Freshly shucked Sydney rock oysters, and five mains. My eyes wander to the next line, Freshly marinated sardine fillets, fennel, parsley, capers and charred focaccia. I adore sardines and know with Daniel Mulligan in the kitchen they'll be beautiful. And the dish is just $14. I to and fro over mains and what entrée will go with them. As it's lunch, I think about having just a few entrée instead.
Finally, the chef decides for me and sends me Swordfish belly, crusted with Pilu bottarga, pickled beetroots, grapefruit puree ($21). The belly of the swordfish is more often used for sashimi; I'm not sure I've seen it as a cooked fish before - I definitely haven't eaten it cooked. Cooked and in its crust, it's so unctuous I can't even do it justice in words. On instagram facebook and twitter I send this message: Oh WOW, Oh WOW...
The flesh of the fish is, in fact, creamy and moist and tender and fatty and full of flavour. But it's the unctuous fattiness of the belly that makes it a winner. And, it is absolutely perfectly cooked. Just at point. Just right. Then, there is the bottarga crust. What an incredible treatment of bottarga. What a marvellous counterpoint to the swordfish. Offsetting all of this, the citrus of the grapefruit puree works a treat, the acid from the pickled beetroots (heirloom and of a variety of colours) not only contrasts in flavour but also in crunchy texture. There's a touch more textural contrast too, with some little popped grains. So, I have to say it- not your typical pub food. Yet, it is where I would like pub food to be.
Fresh scampi had just arrived, and was served as a mid-course. It was so young and sweet and heavenly. Just cooked simply so that the seafood remained the hero. The light grill treatment charred the flavour just an incy wincy bit so it was only at the front, and let the scampi still sing.
I needed more wine, and my next was a wonderful stand alone, then as it opened up, an even better food match with what was to come. Did you know pecorino is a wine?
The previous courses were not to be outdone. There was a build to crescendo with the main: Partially deboned smoked spatchcock, mustard and breadcrumbs, served in the pan. In a nod to the pub surroundings, the main is a contemporary uptake on pub nosh, and the Aussie roast chook. Pure pub genius. As a master of flavour, Mulligan allowed the in-house smoker to only add but not overpower. The flesh was pull-apart moist and tender. And the dish was full of wonderful other nutty flavours, and also textures.
Going past the food, Ajò sits in its totality, where I'd like every restaurant to be, with confident and impeccable service, that is just relaxed and warm enough to bring it back from high end dining but spotless enough to lift it high above casual. The floor is knowledgeable, on the food and the wine. And as I said confident.
Full marks given, for the treatment of another table. You know those guys. The ones that eat out and have money but don't know as much as they think. I'm a few tables away, with no one in between, but they are so loud I can't help but hear. Then, their wine match is professionally deflected to something more suitable, that will work with their food. Brava.
Later I chat with another diner, a regular. "I'm here for the food. I really like food." And as we chat he seems well versed in good eating.
Many courses, including amuse bouche and dessert and then the most gorgeous mouth-watering petit four were enjoyed, and a Thursday turned in to a long leisurely Ajò eating and drinking afternoon.
So you see the score. Everything was a close to perfect as it can get. Everything, including the match of food and wine and service and charming venue. My only regret is that I didn't start with one of the extensive craft beers on tap. (Today's Taps - 15 on the list - was presented as a sheet with the wine list.) Or, that I didn't have enough time or belly room to kick on with a craft beer at the bar afterwards. And, my only question is- can I go back for lunch again tomorrow?