The guy at the next table says he’s on a date; the lady in red opposite seems less certain. “We’re old friends,” she says, with just a hint of a smile. We talk locale (he’s a Darlo diehard), public service (he’s “kind of” in it), restaurants (this is his second consecutive night at Eliza) and Viagra (the price has come down, apparently). We – the guy and the lady in red, me and my dinner guest – are having a delightful and fairly uninhibited night out. In fact, everyone appears to be having a great time; it’s infectious, and it’s no accident. The little place on Victoria Street has so many of the fundamentals nailed.
The rectangular corner site with plenty of exposure; a communal table, lots of smalls; a dining bar and an open kitchen in one corner, the useful but not overt connection to the cooking at this restaurant’s heart. The decor: grainy timbers, clever lighting, soft rendered walls, terrazzo floor tiling; contemporary but very accessible. And that thing you can’t really put a finger on, yet without which a restaurant is simply a place you exchange money for food and drink: mood. The mood at Eliza is so damned buoyant, so positive, so… normal. Mature.
Of course, it’s all down to the staff, led by an excellent manager. Staff who welcome, inform, share, chat, serve and generally reinforce the quaint notion that the most important person in this equation is you.
Eliza would do well even if the food wasn’t up to much, it’s so damned hospitable. The fact that it’s jammed, with no “name” chef involved, no arch marketing plan or radical point of difference, says a great deal. It’s the quintessential neighbourhood bistro, no more, no less. Good wine selection, sound advice, very fair prices…
It’s the snacky stuff that hits the bullseye most frequently: warm, soft and freshly baked flatbread with smooth, sesame-free hummus with a puddle of parsley oil in the centre; pillowy, almost aerated taramasalata with fritters of excellent barramundi brandade; toasted brioche soldiers layered with a sweet tomatoey paste, pickled silvery fat sardine fillet and fennel and mustard, all producing a marvellous sweet/sour sensation in the mouth. I could have just pushed “repeat” right there.
A jumble of cucumber chunks, cured ocean trout pieces and raw scallop, all in a “champagne” and shallot emulsion, is somewhere between crudo and crude, a little too artless to inspire, yet pleasant enough; a fish-finger-like beef short rib schnitzel, on mayo with a wig of pickled red onion, is pretty rich.
Yet a kind of tartare of raw, cold-smoked kangaroo with fruity beetroot and white onion shows how good this meat can be uncooked: the texture is tuna-like, a subtle smokiness revealed beneath a poppyseed lavosh cracker on top.
Three mains, all around $34, speak to the value here. A piece of thin-skinned, golden brown barramundi comes with a deep crimson red wine paste and a jumble of broccolini with its soulmate, anchovy, and a tangle of enoki mushrooms. It works nicely, even if the fish itself is fairly fleshy.
A little goes a long way with a signature side dish here – a single roasted carrot with a kind of carrot mousse, black garlic, peas, pine nuts and sourdough crumb. For me, too many sweet elements.
A green tea brulee capped with macerated fruits and berries matches tannin, cream, sugar and acid just beautifully. And it’s $12. Diners perceive value here, and it contributes significantly to a happy night. Maybe even one with a happy ending.
ADDRESS: 247 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, NSW
CONTACT:(02) 9194 5002; elizafoodandwine.com
HOURS:Dinner Wed- Sun; lunch Fri- Sun
TYPICAL PRICES: Small $20; larger $34; dessert $12
LIKE THIS? TRY… Billie H, Perth; Saxe, Melbourne
SUMMARY: Date night?
STARS: 3.5 out of 5