Ethical eating. Sustainable agriculture. Farm to Table. Concepts with which we are all intimately familiar. This is not a fugacious trend, these concepts cannot be reduced to a set of transient hashtags. Merivale and Danielle Alvarez know this – taking two years to shape the embodiment of these values into one of the hospitality group’s biggest projects yet – Fred’s.
Date Last Visited: 7/01/2017
Address: 380 Oxford Street, Paddington, Sydney, NSW
Go-to Dish: wood-ovened flounder w/leeks & onions
Price Guide (approx): $90pp plus drinks
Frankly, farm to table and sustainably sourced produce is nothing new. There was once a time when a restaurant would make waves by being able to weave stories of the fanciful origins of all the produce it uses, but now it’s practically expected of any restaurant that costs more than $50 a head. It is unfortunately the case that often, the chase for a guilt-free meal comes with a pricetag: while small-scale, low-impact, thoughtful methods ostensibly result in superior quality produce, sometimes that simply hasn’t been the case when translating to the plate.
Enter head chef Danielle Alvarez. With years of experience at Alice Waters’ world-famous Chez Panisse and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, she’s no stranger to talent. Key drivers of her cooking? The first line of this blog post. That and “honest cooking”, though to this day I still have absolutely no idea what that actually means. Cough.
Now, enter Fred’s itself. Styling firms have undoubtedly worked their magic with shades of cream, ceramic and too many types of timber trappings for me to shake a pine broomstick at. This look is coalescing into something very Merivale-esque, though Fred’s is arguably now its magnum opus, as far as restaurants environments go. All that aside, its stunning kitchen easily steals the limelight, with its coal-fired, fire brick-lined hearth. Pro tip: if you want the kitchen view, specifically ask for the counter seats. Self-explanatory, right?
Apparently, that open hearth oven which is central to many dishes is unique to Fred’s. I could feel the heat even from where I was sitting, and with it, a desire for anything and everything that come out of it. With mountains of meat and vegetables smoking and cooking on the hearth, and piles of greens and salads and condiments on the countertop right in front of us, the spell was complete before we even took a bite.
And then finally, there’s the relationship with the farmers. If you’ve ever read up or watched the story of Dan Barber’s – the quintissential champion of ethical & sustainable eating, you’ll know exactly the angle Danielle and the team at Fred’s are going for. If not, watch Chef’s Table now. At Fred’s, intimate relationships with its suppliers produces a short, tight menu that changes on an almost-weekly basis.
The cooking is agreeable and unfussy – no labyrinthine cooking techniques here. Just good produce and lots and lots of rituals by fire.
Simple but effective chicken liver parfait kicked our appetites into gear, with the sweet, livery taste of pate perfectly juxtaposing against the berry-like compote and crunchy crostini.
The waitstaff won’t be asking you “sourdough or rye?” at Fred’s. You’ll have to buy the bread, but the money is easily parted when wood-ovened fougasse w/butter & olive oil is the prize. Deliberately shaped to resemble wheat ears, it’s a matter of representing its taste. It’s good – like a damn good focaccia; toasty, crunchy, not too tough and not too soft and yes – served piping hot such that I could taste the oven from which it came. Eat with creamy butter or fresh olive oil, your pick – the bread’s a winner either way.
Up next, a half dozen clair de lune oysters that easily held their own. While theseweren’t all that meaty or flavourful at first bite,I was positively shocked by their amazing umami aftertaste that I don’t think I’ve ever noticed in an oyster. Things got even better with the white pepper mignonette but honestly, these can go straight down the hatch without it.
Fred’s snapper sashimi is a bit of a departure from its French & Italian-inspired roots, served with an unorthodox blend of smoked, pounded eggplant, jalapenos and mint. The result is a sashimi dish blending Japan and the Mediterranean. That said, the basics are what count, and they were done well – fresh snapper, a great spicy kick from the jalapenos, and an ever so slight bit of zest that I wish were more pronounced. The eggplant itself was a bit of a dud – with only smokiness to show and not much else.
With succulent flesh peeling away from the shell with almost no effort,grilled prawns w/verjus beurre blanc was an easy eat. Buttery, smoky and tart with the roasted grapes, the aroma awards definitely went to this one. Unfortunately, not much flavour went into the prawn meat itself, and so I was just eating underseasoned butter poached prawns.
Bursts of smoky flavour and charring was the primary characteristic of the wood oven squid. Springy meat, crispy and chewy tentacles, and bursts of salty flavour with buttery aioli made for a strong showing. The soft and sweet borlotti beans were also a nice touch – this is how you get kids to eat their beans. A great entree.
Saving the best for last, the spaghetti w/pippies was the family favourite. The headline item is that spicy, fragrant bottarga-infused herb sauce that’s good enough to be a base for any carb in which to dip. It’s buttery, creamy and yes – I literally picked the bowl up to catch some leftover drops. The pasta was al dente and slick, and oh wow – so many pippies. $30 is mains-territory, but totally justified given how many pippies were in there. I do wish that half the pippies would be de-shelled and tossed amongst the noodles, as leaving them all in shell is a little excessive for presentational purposes, and complicated the consumption of the dish having to de-shell a god-awful number of pippies, not to mention the possibility of getting your shirt stained!
Eh, more than worth the effort.
While at the time I relished the prospect of digging into meaty mains annointed by fire, I was less than impressed with the actual outcome. Dry and overcooked pillar rock pork chop was jaw-jarringly chewy, didn’t take up any flavour from the sauce (which itself was quite light), and didn’t impress myself nor the parentals. That the highlight of the dish was the bittersweet, smoky radicchio said volumes about the pork itself.
The story didn’t change much with Fred’s moorlands lamb. Credit where it’s due – the meat on the chop was perfectly cooked, and sported the characteristic smokiness from a fire-driven oven. However, the meat carried little to no flavour and was – I’m afraid – bland. The sliced portions of lamb were inconsistently cooked – over in some areas, perfect in others. In either case, the flavour bomb of this dish came from the crumbed eggplant and charred capsicum.
When vegetables are the best components of a meat dish, I worry. The fire left its mark, but seasoning was missed.
Thankfully, third time’s the charm, with the wood oven flounder easily taking the title of best dish of the meal. That’s not just due to inadequate competition either – this is just a bloody tasty plate of flounder, with tender flesh to be found throughout and on both sides, with salty bits, charred bits and crispy bits in all sorts of surprising places. Flavour was everywhere – as was the butter. It’s a remarkable turn of deliciousness compared to the previous two mains – If Fred’s was an Asian restaurant, I’d be hitting the rice button repeatedly to soak up every last tidbit of flavour!
Fish cooked on the bone has yet to let me down!
With the less-than-stellar mains (not you flounder, you can stay!) cleared, we were desperate for some dessert to change the direction of our palate.
Pastry chef Rosanna Eastwood is almost showing off with the apricot & marzipan galette. “Oh, it’s just like a tart served with ice cream”, you say. Hold your words till you try it.
Perhaps it’s the roasted, sugar-dusted nuts. Or, perhaps it’s the excellent galette base that does the “puff” in puff pastry justice. But it’s also the lemon verbena ice cream – so fragrant and oddly spiced that I thought it was almost ginger ice cream; the juicy-soft apricots – and the overall balance of the dessert is just so on point.
Don’t share too much of this one.
The final dessert takes on an unassuming form of a crusty-licious macadamia meringue that made its nutty presence known before I could even recall the fact that it was a macadamia meringue. This is topped with a froyo, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries, with a crunch-tastic praline that could make itself at home in any dessert.
A downside? The raspberries were less than bargain-bin – small and mouldy, this is not something you want to find in your dessert. For a restaurant operating at Fred’s level, I have no clemency to offer on this.
Farm to table works if the results are delicious. Something is being lost in translating what is surely excellent produce into that gorgeous kitchen, to what’s being put on the plate. It’s not working all the time, and not working nearly as well as it should. It should have been an easy win of a meal and restaurant, and I can’t help but feel I’m missing something given Fred’s near universal acclaim from critics and friends alike. To go against this grain? It’s is even more surprising and uncomfortable than finding a whole bunch of bad raspberries in my dessert.
At least the spaghetti and flounder were amazing 🙂
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Fred’s, Paddington.
Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
- One of the most gorgeous kitchens in Sydney
- Small plates are a joy, as is the treatment of fish
- Sustainable and honest cooking is hitting roadblocks in translating to delicious eating
- Sourcing fresh fruit for the dessert should be absolutely elementary
Would I return: not immediately – a new menu may be the gear shift Fred’s needs.
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.
F6.5 | S4 | A2.5