Paddington's latest haunt Fred's is testament to Justin and Bettina Hemmes' pioneering eating and drinking vision. In an industry severely threatened by Sydney's hotly contested lockout laws, this famed brother and sister duo has a knack for winning over the crowds — seemingly no matter what the circumstance. That, folks, is the Merivale brand.
Regardless of brand or pedigree though, Fred's is worth our time. It's a venue that offers us three unique experiences wrapped up into one wholesome night of farm-to-table fun. So where better to start than with the space itself? Stylist Amanda Talbot (The Paddington, The Newport) and design crew Acme & Co have done a sterling job at creating distinct areas designed to enhance particular experiences.
Entering on street level we're greeted by an industrial-meets-vintage cocktail bar with marble aplenty (half of it plastic imitation, unfortunately) and down in the basement you'll find jazz-inspired hidey hole Charlie Parker's for all your post-dinner digestif needs. You should definitely make a stop down here, but it's up top where you'll want to enjoy the show. The 60-seater dining room is slick, cosy and properly grown-up. The setting emulates the warmth at the heart of a charming country homestead; oversized kitchen islands and freestanding Tuscan grills do away with a traditional restaurant set-up where a custom-made hearth emits a soft glow while head chef Danielle Alvarez's cooking army flits between pans and plates.
Alvarez's creds? Most notably Berkley's Chez Panisse and Napa Valley's The French Laundry. Merivale's known for securing some of the best talent out there and Fred's is no exception. It's not every day you get to indulge in food conceptualised by someone of such calibre — someone who's worked for both the pantheon of the sustainable food movement and a place labelled "the best restaurant in the world, period" by Anthony Bourdain.
Alvarez's food philosophy at Fred' is all about sustainable produce from the people who farm it served by an enthusiastic team passionate about elevating your dining experience. So we have sustainable produce — tick. An enthusiastic team — tick. Absolute culinary mastery? Close to.
For a light-on taste tease, you have the option of getting the party started with the wild kingfish crudo, smoked trout roe, radish, cucumbers, and chives ($24). But although beautifully presented, we can't help but feel this dish misses the mark slightly – less oil and more citrus please, chef. On the other hand, the grilled king prawns with fresh turmeric and kaffir lime butter ($26) are epic. This one's for the crustacean fiends; perfectly moist flesh is accented with just enough cut-through from the citrus component for a simple, clean and refreshing flavour. For something with more pop and crunch, go for the zucchini flower, buffalo ricotta, shaved zucchini with basil vinaigrette ($22) — just don't expect to bite into the same warm, gooey cheesy goodness as you would when dining at Fratelli. But hey, let's not compare.
Tipples wise, the 2015 Murdoch Hill 'The Tilbury' Chardonnay ($19 glass) will add oomph to your starters with notes of lightly honeyed peach, a medium body and vibrant acidity. Softer palettes should try the 2014 Dirler-Cadet Pinot Gris from Alsace ($15) — it's a great example of one of the region's noble grape varieties with ripe orchard fruits which are fresh and delicate in nature.
Comforted by the warmth of both our surrounds and the buzz of the crowd, it's not long before we're lost in the theatrical show that unfolds around us. But surely enough, our attention is commanded once our mains are gently placed on the table in front of us. The Moorlands lamb, bagna càuda (anchovy dip), cos lettuce, asparagus, broad beans and lemon ($44) is unpretentious, tender and juicy. Pair this with the 2014 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna from Sicily ($20 glass) and you've got one helluva party in your mouth. On the other hand, the wood oven-roasted coral trout with roman beans, salsa verde with mussel aioli ($46) let the team down on this occasion. Dry and a bit too salty, we're not convinced the fish at Fred's (on our visit, at least) has been treated with the same respect as the meat. Let's just call it stage fright.
But that certainly doesn't signal the end of the show. Pastry chef Rosanna Eastwood needs to be applauded for a mighty fine effort. After getting her big break at fine dining restaurant The Box Tree before banging about the pans at Momofuko Seibo, Eastwood joined the Merivale family. And we're sure glad she did. Her dessert lineup is something to marvel at; an apricot and marzipan galette ($16) and a chocolate pot de crème ($18) make appearances, but it's the macadamia meringue with yoghurt and fresh strawberry ($18) that we can't go past. Do. It.
As discerning Sydney diners, we're spoilt for choice the further we migrate east. That said, there's nothing quite like Fred's. Sure, a few tweaks would be welcome, but as far as experiences go, it delivers the goods. So we can't help but take our hats off to Merivale. As shown through their many venues — and epitomised through Fred's — they are a prime example of what it means to be an innovative, mass appeal food and drink powerhouse.