I had no idea who Nelly Robinson is. I do know a Ned Kelly; apparently he was famous for acting like a slightly less-cool Tony Stark in the 19th century, and lacked palm & chest repulsors, but I digress. My train of thought sometimes derails a little bit, that happens doesn’t it?
Now, I know a little bit about Nelly. A blurb on Nel Restaurant’s website describes the man to be “celebrated for his contemporary interpretations of modern Australian dishes”. Whoa, hold up there. As a society, we’re still trying to figure out just what in the world modern Australian is, and we’re already modernising the modern?
Here’s my take: Nel Restaurant’s about serving…post-modern Australian cuisine, influenced by his UK stints and his childhood memories. We’ve got a British chef on our shores folks, I’m liking the sound of that. Add to this a pricetag of only $88 for their 8-course, seasonal degustation dinner, and you’ve got a curious fellow who’s still hungry to discover more. It’s time to visit Ned’s hideout. I mean Nel.
Date Last Visited: 18/4/15
Address: 75 Wentworth Ave Sydney, NSW 2000
Recommended Dish(es): green peas & ham, mushroom consomme, beef & oxtail, pistachio ice cream
Situated at what could be called the edge of Surry Hills (only a short walk from World Square or Central), Nel Restaurant occupies a nondescript location on Wentworth Avenue. Its minimalism comes from the fact that 100% of the restaurant itself is underground, with only the stairs taking up store frontage. Suffice to say, one does not accidentally wonder into Nelly’s Den.
Still, even if you did, you’d likely be turned away, or be forced to nibble from snacks at the bar. While our party were the first to arrive, the restaurant quickly filled out, until every table was occupied, with not a seat to spare. Bookings? Essential. The restaurant’s ambience is hoi polloi gastropub, with a large open kitchen so long it almost spans the length of the restaurant.
Being seated close to the kitchen does mean you get to hear the chefs hollering to no end. It does get loud, so when you book, I suggest you ask for a table near the back, unless you like the sound of “SERVICE!” about every twenty seconds. Best avoid this area, if on a date.
At dinner, Nel Restaurant’s only option for you is the aforementioned 8-course, $88 degustation. Oddly fortuitous for Chinese people….let’s see if we get lucky. It’s time to see if Nel is “the next LuMi“, as one friend put it to me.
If snacking is your thing, Nel’s got you covered with a trifecta of nibbles. At the front we’ve got pickled quail egg resting on top of shaved kombu, with smoked salmon, resting on salmon skin with salmon mousse and salmon roe on top heading up the rear.
I’m a fan of the quail egg’s texture more than anything else – a soft, chewy, yolky centre, with a bready crust makes for a bite that’s most suited for winter. The delicate kombu below is almost like gossamer, disappearing as fast as it’s put in the mouth. While textures were nice, I couldn’t detect very much flavour coming out of either the quail egg or the kombu. It really isn’t delicious per se, but its texture meant it was still addictive to eat!
In a bit of a twist, the story flips with regards to the salmon snack. Flavours were excellent – befitting the heady aroma and smoked mouthfeel of cured salmon + salmon roe. However, the salmon itself was exceedingly chewy & stringy, with the skin below very tough and difficult to bite through. It’s like bread crusts that have been left out for too long. The skin, it should be noted, carried almost no flavour, and was quite oily. No contribution was made to what sits atop it. I did not like this very much.
The quail egg is a bit better. For me, an unpalatable texture translates to a dish writeoff, while banal flavour can be mitigated with favourable texture.
What about three for three? A snack that can nail both sides of the equation? To Nel’s credit, a snack that fits this criteria appears under the name of green peas & ham. The waiter gave a story on how this is a recipe of Nelly’s grandmother, as one of her comfort dishes made for him back in the day. Two areas of the pig – the head and the trotter, are slow-cooked, shredded, crumbed and deep fried with a generous side of green pea puree. Classically British – nobody is around to give two hoots on the health “benefits” of this dish. Rather, we focus on the taste benefits, which are far more important for a growing palate.
We’re talking deep fried, after all. That’s already half the battle, easily won. The shredded pig meat is tender as can be, while maintaining integrity thanks to the compacting and breaded exterior. There’s also a hint of spiciness that is broadly reminiscent of a Chinese method to prepare pig’s meat. The green pea puree serves to both cut through the heaviness, as well as providing a vegetable-sweetness to the ‘pig chips’. It’s great stuff.
Now, replace the previous two snacks with two more copies of this, and we’re talking.
Now, what kind of modern modern Australian meal are we having if we’re not involving bread in the discussion? Nel steps up from the standard sourdoughs and brings forth a petite onion clove bread w/saffron honey glaze, served with garlic butter. I don’t want to hang on the bread too much, but suffice to say it’s very tasty. The glaze on top of the bun is very atypical of bread served at Western restaurants, and more akin to something you might find at Breadtop or another Asian bakery. Then again, Chinaman writing this blog – no complaints here. The glaze adds a bit of a chewiness to texture, as well as a sugary-spicy flavour mix that’s as enticing as it is spicy. That must be the saffron doing the rounds.
I couldn’t really taste the garlic in the garlic butter, but it served its duty most honourably.
I should have asked for seconds!
A recurring theme that I picked up with Nel Restaurant’s dishes is that they feature a long list of ingredients. Waiters take every opportunity to explain every element, despite the fact that none of us at the table can remember more than three. It’s time to be a terrible blogger and not name them all, because if I don’t taste them, they may as well not be there.
Such as it is with the spanner crab dish. Daikon – crunchy, microplaned slices of the root, check. Chilli – I hardly detect it with my high heat tolerance but it’s there, check. Tomato – visibly apparent, check. Basil, that’s there too, so check. There’s also foam of some sort, but I’m still of the mind that foam is highly superfluous, so I’ll leave that there.
How does it all come together? The most enjoyable element of this dish is definitely the spanner crab. It’s beneath those daikon slices, and uncovering them is like unearthing a small parcel of treasure. The dish is served cold, which seems to be a common way of doing crab these days. It was a bit bland, with a slight sweetness arising out of it, but overall I felt that a hot dish might have done better.
The rest of the ingredients made the dish look pretty, as it needed to be. They are accessories to the crab, the true star of the dish. An average entree, with a lot going on, and not all of it strictly necessary.
If Nel is saving warmth for a double-whammy of a dish, the autumn mushroom consomme would be it. I’ve mentioned before that mushrooms have an uncanny ability to pair very well with umami flavours, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. The consomme, make no mistake, is full on mushroom. I’m glad I’ve become accustomed to eating mushrooms recently, so this dish didn’t go to waste. Now, I find it most aromatic, and before I knew it, I was down to the last few spoonfuls, where I discovered the truffle dumpling!
There’s a strong pine nut flavour to the dumpling, which goes quite well with the heady truffle. As I’m Chinese, I’m not used to eating just a single dumpling, so I felt quite miffed at not being able to get more. I suppose this is what I have to live with when it comes to these “fine dining” shenanigans.
Oh by the way, that rectangular crisp on the side? Basically a deep fried flatbread of sorts. It adds to the presentation, as well as providing me something crunchy to nibble on. Useful!
It’s incredible just how thin each slice of the venison carpaccio is. From above, it looks like you’re getting a good portion of meat, while in reality…you could be forgiven for making such a mistake. The venison itself is quite buttery in texture, but possesses almost no flavour. That’s to be taken care of by the pickled red cabbage underneath. It’s flavoured with three types of Szechuan pepper, chocolate dust, and boy, is it sour. Mixing it in with each slice of the carpaccio yields a dish that aims for a balance, but far overshoots it with its acerbic flavour profile. The peppers are barely detectable, but the chocolate dust does make an impression in cutting through a bit of that acidity.
The dish is definitely a little too sour, but for the most part, I did really enjoy the flavour pairing of the venison’s vegetable “mattress” and the texture of the venison itself. There is however, plenty of room for improvement.
The best savoury dish of the night is appropriately the beef cheek & oxtail sandwich ‘toastie’. It wins because it ticks basic boxes for a nourishing main – lots of meat, cooked in different ways and successfully so; plenty of garnishings on the side to keep the meat interesting; a crunchy textural element (that corn chip is really good!), and something sweet to round things off (figs). My favourite part is definitely the aptly nailed ‘oxtail toastie’, which is exactly that – an oxtail “meat loaf” that’s been “sandwich pressed”. Crispy on the outside, tender and savoury on the inside. Additional flavour is provided by the currant gels, as well as the chestnut puree that’s hidden underneath the brussel sprout leaves. The devil’s in the garnishes for this one!
As for the beef cheek itself, it’s very tender, but not as flavoursome as the oxtail toastie. It’s actually bland-ish in comparison. There is a modicum of seasoning scattered around the plate to mop up. I’m sure that’s the intended way to eat what’s on the plate. You know what’s new for me? Beef cheeks + figs = totally works. It’s one of those sweet/savoury combos I don’t question. I just eat.
The lowdown is pretty simple – buttery soft beef cheeks, savoury oxtail sandwich, plenty of carbs on the side. Comfort food, as Nelly intends it to be.
The first of our desserts is a bed of vodka & rum-soaked raisins/rockmelon, of which on top, rests a pineapple sorbet with a milk crisp jutting out. Shaved comte is liberally sprinkled all around the dish, completing the look.
If I hadn’t experienced cheesy dessert, I’d be wondering just how it all ties in. You know it does. The pineapple sorbet is refreshing and acidic, but never by too much. It’s balanced out by the denser, chewier sweetness of the candied fruits on the bottom. The alcoholic edge is a bit sketchy, but I didn’t dislike it. The milk curd crisp on top, in conjunction with the comte, is reminiscent of Chinese milk candies I had in my youth, so points are scored here!
This is going to be a hard one to top.
But then, Nel tops it anyway, with the pistachio sorbet, cherry & white corn. Powdered white corn & white chocolate is mixed with popping candy, forming the base of the dessert. A few dollops of cherry ‘jam’ is then spooned in, which is topped by a generous quenelle of pistachio sorbet. A bit of superfluous fairy floss tops the dessert. Presentation is a bit sloppy, and details do count. You do tend to forgive these things once you take a bite…
Oh, it’s REALLY good. The pistachio flavour makes no attempt at subtlety. Pistachio lovers, you’re going to love this. The sorbet is actually a bit more like an ice cream in texture as well as flavour. I think I’d prefer it this way, a sorbet lends itself better to more acidic flavour profiles, while a thicker, richer ice cream texture suits pistachio.
The popping candy is ever so fun to eat, with aurally audible cracking happening at a happy clip. My friends and I revelled in this! The cherry jam was nice, but not strictly necessary as the sorbet itself was more than capable of carrying its own. The rest of the dessert ‘bed’ brings out the crunchy texture I always like in my desserts.
I should mention that when my particular plate of this dessert was plated, the fairy floss fell off. Without prompting, the waiter switched my plate and a still-good plate of one of my friends. He knew I was taking photos, so I think he meant well, but this was interpreted as a rude gesture by my friend. Apart from this incident, service has been exceptional. It seems like a nitpick, but moving plates around after they’ve hit the table should be at our discretion, not waitstaff. #fulldisclosure
This is one of the better desserts I’ve had this year, coming close to my current favourite “Evergreen” at LuMi. It would be my go-to dish at Nel!
The meal finishes off with a pair petit fours – eccles cakes & lime and toffee apple. These are more memories of Nelly’s childhood, brought to our table in edible form. The eccles cakes were crispy, like a sweet and lemon sour pastry. A dainty bite all too quickly gone. The toffee apple is recommended to be eaten whole, as there’s a toffee-like liquid centre, which never ceases to amuse and delight. These are better petit fours than I’m usually used to getting – Nelly clearly pays attention to the meal from start to finish.
I always like a good story behind a restaurant. That Nelly is doing his best to bring his childhood memories onto every diner’s plates is to be celebrated. This is truly “semi-fine dining comfort food”, at a “semi-fine dining” price point. Overall, I enjoyed my visit to Nel, but when it was called “the next LuMi” my expectations were set unrealistically high. Nel’s 8-course menu can be broken down as – 4 winners and 4 mediocre. Honestly? It’s a pretty good run for any restaurant. With one exception, service has also been top notch, with waitstaff more than happy to answer any questions.
I would highly recommend Nel for at least one visit, and take it from there. Their menu changes every month from what I’ve heard. Return visits?
This post is based on an independent visit to Nel Restaurant
What are your thoughts on Ned Kelly’s new restaurant? Let me know your thoughts below!
- Comfort food @ comfortable prices
- Absolutely smashing desserts
- About half the menu is average (not bad -just average), lacking wow factor
- Plating is very haphazard and busy at times
- Yes, you can get tired of hearing the loud voices of chefs screaming in the kitchen, even if you’re used to watching Masterchef
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.
F7 | S4 | A2