When announcing their new head chef was one John Javier, a spokesperson for The Lord Wolseley Hotel acknowledged he was "a little overqualified" for the unassuming Ultimo pub. It's probably a fair call, given Javier comes with a resume studded with fine diners such as Momofuku Seiobo, Quay and his own place, now-closed place, Master, which wowed critics with its ambitious take on modern Chinese.
The bill isn't quite to bring fine dining to a pub setting, but Javier is certainly bringing a new level of finesse to some fairly approachable food. Instead of the tried and true spaghetti bolognese, for instance, there's a capellini with lamb belly, tripe and mint ($18).
It scratches the same itch as the pub classic, but brings something new to the dish and the thin, al dente strands of pasta pair well with the crunch and chewiness of tripe and the freshness of the generously ripped mint leaves.
One of the memorable dishes from Javier's time at Master was a burnt cabbage and he's not afraid of introducing some judicious blackened touches to his menu here, with the Burnt Pumpkin ($20). A poached egg on top oozes over the hero vegetable, strewn with chevre cheese and crisp sage, ties it together into an unusual, earthy whole.
Gnocchi is also approached from a fresh angle, with pillowy dumplings resting in a feather-light tomato emulsion and spiked with colour and bite with slivers of radish.
There are two desserts on offer — the menu wisely aims for quality over breadth — with a faultless panna cotta ($12) scattered with toasted buckwheat and encircled by Vietnamese coffee. The other selection is a half-moon shaped crispy pancake ($12), filled with stewed apple and hazelnut and complemented by a dollop of thick ricotta cream. This is the kind of superior comfort food that is going to get clean plates returned to the kitchen.
The vibe is laidback with brown paper in place of tablecloths, and tourist t-shirts and playbills for student theatre productions hanging on the walls. An energetic playlist, another Javier trade mark, is another plus — instead of the generic background music favoured by some Sydney restaurants you'll hear the likes of Talking Heads, Pixies and Joy Division.
It's not really a lengthy wine list kind of place, but the friendly local will sort you out with craft beers, ciders and some wines by the glass, like a 2016 Teusner Shiraz ($11/49), a flavoursome drop from the Barossa Valley.
All in all, it may be an unexpected stop on Javier's resume, but those lapping up a menu full of personality will be glad it's one he has made.
Images: Jiwon Kim