It's maybe before the first course even arrives that you start thinking nel. is a major new addition to the Sydney dining scene. Somewhere between the yolky quail eggs with kombu moss and the tissue paper-thin truffle crunches. Prettily presented on a rock and undersold as pre-meal 'snacks', these exquisitely formed miniatures show a delicacy, imagination and precision of technique that quickly sets the place apart.
Located in an underground bunker in an otherwise drab stretch of Wentworth Avenue, nel. is a subdued but stylish space with exposed brickwork and an open kitchen. The lower case name comes from chef Nelly Robinson, whose background includes stints with Michelin starred Lancashire chef Nigel Howarth. The menu (eight-course dinner $118, abbreviated lunch menu $55) is a prix fixe affair which changes every six weeks.
Current offerings include a colourful main featuring thin slices of scallops, neat rectangles of fresh watermelon and cucumber foam. It tastes as good as it looks and serves as a kind of masterclass on combining different textures into a harmonious whole: the airiness of the foam, the smoothness of a lightly drizzled coriander puree, the sugary crunch of the fruit and slipperiness of the lime-cured scallops all add something to the dish here.
There's a touch of Philippa Sibley in the exquisite presentation and maybe even a bit of Heston playfulness to Robinson's cooking. The latter is certainly seen in the delightfully English green peas and ham, which sees pork cooked for five-and-a-half hours and pressed overnight, with the tastiest cuts made into a crumbed chip for dipping into a mushy pea sauce.
Every dish brings at least one touch of left-field inspiration, be it the unusual crunch of charred cos lettuce with kangaroo and mascarpone carrot puree, or the unexpected dab of raspberry vinegar which harmonises with the sweetness of golden beetroot.
Five of the courses come with a pair of (tasting-sized) glasses of wines ($90 for matching wines), carefully calibrated to match with the food and also to build on the taste of the partnering wine. As with everything at nel., it is clear a lot of thought has gone into these pairings. A honey-hued 2013 Cullen Amber complements a beetroot and goat's cheese dish, while the venison carpaccio, pickled mushroom and chocolate soil is elevated considerably by a Curlewis vineyards Pinot Noir with plummy notes and a smoky Burgundy red which chimes with the four different types of pepper used to lightly sear the meat.
Similar to another Sydney standout, Pinbone, the menu only offers enigmatic hints of the ingredients involved. A dessert of 'pistachio, white corn, cherry' turns out to be an ethereal swirl of pistachio fairy floss sitting above pastel green sorbet with a rich cherry compote and a pop rocks-like element for crunch.
The quality continues through to the closing petit fours; an Eccles cake with a lemon curd is a nice nod to Robinson's Lancashire roots, while a chocolate and passionfruit sphere seems to defy physics by packing a crazy amount of citric tang into its small size. With exemplary, well-informed service to guide you through a heady menu, nel. is exceptional from start to finish.