When it comes to naming exceptional cafes in Sydney’s CBD, it would be a struggle for me to even name five venues, let alone a top five. Don’t get me wrong – excellent coffee talent is plentiful, but cafes that serve great food as well? A demand where supply is dearly lacking. Are us suits really so busy that we can’t sit down and have some properly delicious food while on lunch break?
I sure hope not, because the folks from Paramount Coffee Project and Reuben Hills finally bring us the gift of Hills Bros – a cafe in the heart of Martin Place that does as much justice to food as it does to the coffee bean.
Date Last Visited: 6/09/2016
Address: 5 Martin Place, CBD, Sydney, NSW
Go-to Dish: brown rice congee
Price Guide (approx): $10-20
Hills Bros doesn’t have the most obvious signage, but then again, it doesn’t really need it. It’s striking from the moment you walk inside. Benches are functional, utilitarian concrete slabs. These are adorned with space-grey, matte-finished lamps and the look is completed with a textured concrete backdrop with abstract 3D motifs. Architect Alana Cooke’s fit-out is fifty shades of concrete – for the lack of a better descriptor – excellently matching the Ashurst building in which it resides.
I’ve been implying that Hills Bros brings more to the CBD than just good coffee (hint: you won’t be disappointed with the coffee). So then what is this food I’m talking about?
Apparently, the CBD demographic prefers something a bit lighter, a bit easier – according to Hills Bros chef Naoya Shimada. To cater for this, he’s put on a healthier spin to Hills Bros’ fare which incorporates a Latin-American & Japanese vibe – much like the original Reuben Hills cafe. Call it fusion if you will, but it works. Sure, it’s not fried chicken or ice cream sandwiches, but hold your judgement right there – let’s get eating first.
Kicking off with my favourite dish on the menu is the Brown rice congee w/poached chicken.
Did I just name a lowly congee as my favourite Hills Bros dish? Why yes, yes I did. Maybe it’s the fact that I first had it during winter – a climate for which congee was pretty much the de facto go-to in my household. Or maybe it’s because it’s just such a well-executed dish: nutty, softened brown rice (don’t expect al dente here – this ain’t risotto), an excellently prepared ajitama with gooey yolk, a hearty amount of tenderly-poached chicken, and pickles to cut through the whole lot.
I haven’t yet mentioned one of the best things about the congee – and that’s the bacon jam. It’s the secret to the flavour bomb that would otherwise be an uninspiring bowl of porridge. Nothing quite elicits the same kind of pleasure as this porcine wonder – this textural, sweet relish is to be…well…relished.
Given the whole Reuben Hills heritage and whatnot, you would think putting the sandwich after which it’s eponymously named on the menu was a foregone conclusion.
Well, maybe. Not quite. Say hi to the Not reuben, which eschews traditional corned beef for beef brisket instead. It’s a subtle substitution, but it alters the sandwich’s taste profile in a significant way, compared to a normal Reuben. For me, this resulted in a much chewier texture profile, that wasn’t quite at the level of melt-in-your-mouth, and meant it tasted bit more like a steak sandwich. It was a fair bit rich, though not as oleaginous as say, short rib.
The manchego made its presence felt, along with the creaminess of the mayo. The slaw is sweeter than it is sour, and it sported a satisfying crunch. However, it was a bit watery – which sogged up the bottom piece of bread. Speaking of the bread, it’s a rye, and it came semi-toasted.
Overall, quite an enjoyable sandwich, though the runny nature of the slaw did unfortunately spoil the moment for me somewhat. That said, I would be happy to eat this again.
In fact, if you order the Not Reuben, then a bittersweet (with more bitter than sweet) Assam tea is a good companion beverage to wash it all down. I don’t usually buy tea as I have so much loose leaf at home, but this was a well-placed brew that served to cut through the fattiness of the Not Reuben with efficacy.
One of the more palpably Asian-influenced dishes on Hills Bros’ menu is the Miso braised pork bowl. This is essentially, in three words, a pulled pork salad. Of course, it’s a good salad, as far as salads go. There’s the usual suspects of tender pulled pork, with gingery and briny flavours of really crunchy slaw, sweetened by the buttered corn. There’s a bit of umami from bonito fish flakes, a spicy tinge from shichimi chilli powder, and some extra creamy fat from kewpie mayo. The excellent-as-usual ajitama once again graces the bowl.
I did have one apprehension about this salad, and that’s the “temperature anxiety” from which this dish suffers. For me, the pork came in hot, but the salad vegetables cold. After not too long a time, the whole dish settled at an awkward lukewarm temperature, which was a little weird for me.
But that’s about it – the rest of the dish is great!
For those looking for a more substantial feed, the beef rendang curry w/turmeric rice is the dish to dig into. The most tender, flavourful beef Hills Bros can muster is found here, and it’s generously covered with a sweet jam that’s redolent of tamarind. The rice is fragrant and really moreish, the onion crunchy, and the peanuts also had a nutty role to play. The greens are something special too – not only did they retain their brilliant green hue and watery crunch, they are also pickled to just the right level of saltiness which allows them to add to, rather than take from, the flavour of the dish.
A bowl I could definitely see myself getting again.
Perhaps the most substantial plate of them all, the negatively-plated achiote chicken tacos may not look like much in that there’s only two, but don’t be deceived – they’re sizable.
Fortunately, with big quantity comes quality. The overall flavour profile is sweet and spicy, with a lot more of the former – courtesy of the jalapeno chilli paste. I quite liked the intensity of it, though the sweetness did need to be dialled back a bit. The corn tortillas were quite stretchy, with a lot of bite to them. You’ll be working on them equally as much whether you use teeth or knife & fork – both of which I tried (in-hand is still the best!)
The chicken was unfortunately just a little bit dry, but its crispy, charred skin went a long way in getting me to forget about it. The slaw was as usual, quite crunchy – but also typical of Hills Bros, a bit watery. You’ll be making a sloppy mess on the plate no matter how you cut your teeth on this.
On another note – and for the record – I tried the supposed superdrink that is a turmeric & ginger latte. Probably the first and last time I do that…
Sorry almond milk, you and I will never understand each other.
I have frequented Hills Bros five times now – it’s a perfect storm of convenience and quality that’s got me hooked. It’s one of my favourite cafes in Sydney right now, and you can bet on the fact that my patronisation of this gem is nowhere near over. This one had better stay!
This post is based on five independently-paid visits to Hills Bros.
- Sydney’s CBD is finally getting what it deserves.
- Fusion done right.
- Service can be patchy when things get busy.
- It’s still an “office building cafe” with all of the associated “busy busy” & suits vibes.
- Portions are on the small side – you’d be hankering for something more less than two hours afterwards!
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8 | S3 | A2