The legend of the phoenix represents the attainment of new beginnings from the ashes of the old. While Mexican Taqueria Cafe Pacifico is no more, the enterprising Pasi Petanen has taken over the premises, rebranding it as Cafe Paci, and subsequently took Sydney foodies by storm.
Cafe Paci’s lease over the old Cafe Pacifico site lasts until January 2015, which technically makes them a popup restaurant, albeit long-lived. Chef Pasi Petanen, ex-head chef at Marque Restaurant, heads the operation, bringing with him years of experience at what was one of Sydney’s finest restaurants. That said, I was not fully satisfied with my Marque experience, so it would be interesting to see how Pasi has adapted his repertoire for Paci.
There’s a twist though – Pasi brings in his own Finnish-inspired style which, combined with his stint at Marque, results in something that I honestly can say is one of the most unique meals I’ve had this year. It’s highly innovative cooking, making for one hell of an impressive menu, even if it doesn’t always work. Should you try it? Yes. Not convinced? Read on, but be quick – only a few more months to go!
Date Last Visited: 26/9/2014
Address: 95 Riley Street Darlinghurst, NSW 2010
Recommended Dish(es): lamb tartar, cauliflower & squid ink rice
As Cafe Paci is situated on the old premises of Cafe Pacifico, they were able to liberally utilise what was already there – the sign, the name, the decor…all of it, really. It’s smart, as well as paying homage to what once was.
Entrance to the restaurant is via a narrow staircase, which you can see in the above picture. It’s almost like entering a secret club…
…seriously. There is virtually no indication as to where you’re headed into. It’s a good thing Cafe Paci isn’t trying to be like another Marque, as this would be pretty flakey by fine dining standards. Luckily, Paci is full of its own character.
While the photo is black and white, it isn’t far off the palette in real life. The one change Pasi chose to make to the old site was to “neutralise” all of the colours in the restaurant space. Seriously, it’s gray all over.
I definitely have to say the colour scheme is unique, though I personally can’t bring myself to like it. Gray is the colour that depresses, after all. Blue would have been a better colour for my tastes. Personal preferences in the end.
The menu is prix fixe, at $85pp or $45 for lunch. The latter is only available on a Friday, and has different food from what I’ve seen.
We start off with a few drinks from the short but sweet cocktail menu. The Lady and I don’t usually drink alcohol in any capacity, but the names of these drew us in. Clearly, naming is everything.
In front was my order of Paci-fi-colada, which was a pleasantly light drink as far as alcohol goes. Sweetness from the coconut was subtle, while the pineapple was really only felt when I was eating into the slice provided. The rum made its presence known through the spiciness, which was refreshing.
The Lady’s Lili was not as pleasant, primarily due to a very strong alcoholic taste. I don’t recall plum sake tasting that strong, but I didn’t realise chartreuse was part of the mix. It packs a punch and took all night to finish. Perhaps that’s a good thing?
The meal went off with a very strong start. I almost always enjoy the snacks/amuse component of a meal, and Cafe Paci’s offerings were a notch above.
In recognition of the previous owners of the space, rye bread tacos w/sticky rice combine the Mexican of the past, with Pasi’s Finnish present. This dish was all about texture – the tacos were served warm and were thick enough to inspire a great heartiness in our stomachs. The sticky rice and egg butter are Finnish-inspired creations which again, further the sensation of a fulfilling morsel. Chewy and creamy, these had an excellent mouthfeel.
The downside is that they didn’t have too much flavour. That said, the feeling of eating this was so good, we wanted more nonetheless just for that texture.
As for the pear wellington “sandwiches”, these essentially tasted like dehydrated and roasted pear slices sandwiching an aromatic mimolette cheese. So simple but extremely delicious. Again, a dish of which I could eat multiple.
The trout lardo is a cheat dish – there is no way this could taste bad. Combine what I love about sashimi and add a literal layer of fat onto it and you’re well on your way to winning my money.
It’s almost like eating a leaf when it comes to the roasted radicchio. The bitterness of the vegetable is completely countered by the cheese that was dusted over it. There was also a sweetness from the raspberry – classic fruit & cheese combo, rethought. It seems like cheese is winning all over the places. Snacks? Make it a main meal please!
Because it’s Cafe Paci, even the bread has to be different. It’s not every restaurant where you get fermented rye bread w/molasses. The taste? Very mushy, almost doughy. It’s not like the dry, wheaty texture normal bread has. This tastes quite dense, and possesses a bittersweet flavour which is kind of like a sweet liquorice. It’s also served warm – which is +100 points in my book. I love warm bread!
I wouldn’t say this bread is superior to classic ryes or sourdoughs – it’s just something different. Personally? My allegiance lies with the classics, but it is nice to change once in a while.
If there was a dish that definitely underwhelmed us, it would be the pomelo w/blue swimmer crab. I can see Pasi is trying to do something very different here, but ultimately the bitterness of the fruit and the crab didn’t balance out. There was too much of the former, overwhelming the flavours of the crab. Pomelo has a very strong flavour, while crab is very subtle. That didn’t work out very well.
One plus is the usage of vadouvan spice. I’ve never heard of this one before, but it has a bit of a Paprika & Cumin taste, which really would have gone very well with the crab, if it weren’t for the pomelo. My fondest memory of this dish was the spice – indeed it lingers in your mouth long after the dish is gone.
While disappointing dishes are often unavoidable, in this case Paci only goes uphill from here. The lamb leg tartar is a solid dish that begins to flex Pasi’s muscles at what he can do. The kale is crispy but not overcooked, and anyone that’s had good kale chips knows how tasty this superfood can be. That’s only the start.
Then there’s the lamb itself, hiding beneath a layer of toasted breadcrumbs. It’s quite creamy in texture, given the tartar sauce, and as a result you feel like you’re eating a lot more than there actually is on the plate. That’s ok, because you would otherwise be craving for more. Seriously delicious stuff, but the flavours are kept simple. This is one dish where the ingredients shine for themselves.
This dish is all about the ingredients as well – what other restaurant would dare put cauliflower as the star of a dish?
I’ve always loved cauliflower, so I’ll already be biased here, but this is some seriously delicious treatment of this humble vegetable. Cooking it in anchovy butter and squid ink rice is deceptively simple, but this cauliflower is roasted perfectly – it avoids the trap of being either raw or mushy. The crunch is perfect while being cooked through, with buttery aromas making their way throughout the entire piece. Mopping up the sauce was the single most pleasurable experience I will have this night, and there was competition for that accolade.
The “photato” is a play on the Vietnamese pho dish, in which the “noodles” are actually made out of expertly sliced potato to resemble noodle strands. The level of knifework that would have gone into this is not something I would even begin to attempt.
While there is a minty, beefy broth at the bottom of the dish, it was really the ingredients of the dish that did the talking here rather than any pretension to the original noodle soup dish on which it’s based. The enoki mushrooms were soft and chewy, full of texture, which can also be said of the Rangers Valley beef. It almost looks rare, and indeed chews through with the same level of ease and flavour. A dish full of strengths, even if I did crave a bit of actual pho by the end of it.
The Lady could not bring herself to down blue cheese. Even knowing this, I had to to see what the optional cheese course of gorgonzola w/dehydrated chocolate mousse was all about.
Turned out I may have made a mistake with this one (I should have ordered the other option!)
While I like blue cheese, I can’t eat such a large amount by myself – it’s just too much. Luckily, I had plenty of dehydrated chocolate mousse to smooth the journey – these tasted like light & airy chocolate wafers with a flavour strong enough to fight the strength of the blue cheese.
The sesame-encrusted ball on the side resembled a prune-like cheese in taste. I honestly have no idea what this was!
Our pre-dessert is actually better than our dessert. No joke, I never kid when it comes to sugar. The white yoghurt is light and airy, almost like a foam but still nearly creamy. Once you get past this subtle sweetness, what is essentially a carrot/mandarin sorbet hits and it hits hard. This part is amazing because it’s such a refreshing contrast to the yoghurt, and I’m known to be more than partial to these types of desserts.
You then hit the third, liquorice layer, which doesn’t taste very much like liquorice (thank goodness), but rather a nice bittersweet flavour which works well with the chilled refreshment of the sorbet. I literally said “so f*cking good” while eating this, and not quietely either.
Paci’s actual dessert is a concoction of rye ice cream w/apple, white beer, cocoa & malt. While the ingredients may be unorthodox, it does seem like this would be a strong combination on paper.
Well yes, it was actually. It’s quite delicious – particularly the ice cream which tasted almost bready-sweet, with a big apple hit.
I’m not saying much on this dessert – because honestly? I was still reeling from the pre-dessert. Hoooo boy.
But in all seriousness, both are quite nice, the first was just better.
“Petit fours” at Cafe Paci comes in the form of “pork and fennel” & “corn and butter”. On the left is pork crackling coated in chocolate & fennel seeds, while on the right is a corn cotton candy with a “corn” dust.
The pork and fennel pieces works well – the crackling isn’t the hard type, but rather the soft kind which has a melt-in-your-mouth feel. Suffice it to say, chocolate and fennel happens to work with pork skins!
I’m less sold on the fairy floss – it was the only thing we didn’t finish – it’s just too much, knowing that’s literally sugar. The powder did virtually taste like corn flakes which was a nice touch, but ultimately it was just cotton candy.
It would have been much more exciting to see a wider selection of petit fours, as opposed to a massive ball of cotton candy.
Cafe Paci’s food is definitely not your average fare. Pasi seems to know what he’s doing, and the menu is constantly being reinvented to keep up with the times. Not everything worked for me, but what did, worked brilliantly. Would I come back? Yeah, I probably would. In fact, I may make a point of it to do so before it closes in January.
I hope they’re looking for permanent premises to settle down, I really do.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- Highly innovative cuisine that delivers on most promises
Not so Awesome:
- The depressing decor – it’s unique but uniqueness for its own sake isn’t great
- A few dishes missed the mark