TOP 100 QUEST: CAFE PACI, Sydney
As you’re walking up the stairs to an unmarked door, you start to wonder if you’re in the right place. With its lack of door signage and flaking paint, it’s not the usual entrance to a restaurant that’s made the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 list. Walking in, you find yourself in a sparse, industrial space featuring grey, grey and more grey. There’s an impressive feature light near the entrance and there’s floor to ceiling curtains separating the dining area from the kitchen, but it kind of looks… well, a little unfinished. However, there’s a reason for that – Café Paci opened as a pop-up, with an initial twelve month lease. The room used to be Café Pacifico (Tex Mex) before ex-head chef of Marque, Pasi Petanen, took the space over.
You’re warmly greeted by restaurant manager Zoltan Magyar, also ex Marque, and sommelier Dennis Roman, formerly of Uccello at the Ivy, also known as the man with the oh-so-cool-amazing-moustache.
I knew little about what to expect food-wise at Café Paci so was interested to see the menu which features 8 courses plus ‘snacks’. First came the Rye Taco topped with rice pudding, egg butter and sour onions – flavours inspired by the Finnish Karelian Pie – a pie traditionally made with a rye crust commonly filled with barley, buckwheat, potato or rice – a nice touch stemming from Pasi’s Finnish background. Then the other snacks – a Rye Biscuit with lardo, kohlrabi and apple, an Oat Cracker with oyster cream and black garlic, and a Sour cream and trout tartlet. All very different to what others are currently serving in their range of ‘snacks’. All tasty. The night was off to a good start.
Then, to our delight, we were lucky enough to be given an additional course – Pasi’s special ‘Easter Egg’. What arrived were perfect egg shells with their tops cleanly sliced off and filled with egg yolk, a salted white chocolate emulsion, topped with porcini powder. After this, another Finnish touch – traditional Finnish Potato Bread with house cultured butter. This bread takes 3 days to make and when done, it’s dipped in molasses. It’s a nice shade of dark brown with a lovely sheen.
The first non-snack dish arrived – a beautiful sea of purple. Gorgeously thin sheets made from Purple Congo potato puree – but there’s something hiding underneath – cured and pickled kingfish, folded into buttermilk and mixed with chives, dill, parsley and mashed boiled eggs. Next – the showstopper – one of the most beautiful creations I’ve seen – sheer artistry! It looks like a sweet, but it’s essentially savoury – crisp radicchio leaves dressed with apple balsamic and dusted with freeze-dried raspberry arranged atop a mixture of shredded duck leg confit meat, hazelnut milk and pieces of toasted hazelnut pieces.
Next, one of my favourites for the night – Cabbage, mussel butter, bone marrow and pomelo. The cabbage has been roasted in the mussel butter, the bone marrow and mussels are juicy, and it’s topped with cavalo nero powder and served with Meyer lemon puree and pomelo segments. Very tasty.
And then… another masterpiece – sheer genius, actually. The ‘Photato’. What is that? I’m glad you asked. It’s Pasi’s own take on Vietnamese pho. Thin noodles made from potato are cooked in garlic butter and served with thinly sliced wagyu chuck rib, poached enoki mushrooms, water cress, garlic chips and horseradish. Loved it!
Then came the ‘sweets’ – and they’re my kind of sweets as they have savoury elements. First, the Licorice Cake with carrot sorbet, yoghurt mousse and dried licorice. YUM! Following this was the Malt Ice Cream with roast pear puree and shavings of porcini mushroom and white chocolate pastry. A really different dish and interesting texturally.
And two things to finish – a playful white ball of fluff – Brown butter fairy floss topped with popcorn powder, and some Puffed pork skin coated in dark chocolate, candied fennel seeds and fennel pollen.
Pasi Petanen is working magic. His food is inventive, creative and surprising, combining sweet and savoury elements and every dish is a work of art. Mix this with excellent service from Zoltan, Dennis and the crew, at only $95 per head, it’s amazing value.
[Note: Being quite dark in the restaurant, the photos I took didn’t show off the food as I would have liked – however I was lucky enough to come across some great photos on Instagram taken by the lovely Evita Pan just a few days later, and she kindly agreed to let me use hers. If you want to see some beautiful food photography, check out her gallery – “@evita.m.au”]