My nervousness about geometric food knows no bounds and while I had heard good things about Artisan, for some reason I had it in my head that this might be the kind of place that marshalled food into tidy submission. Well, what a relief and a lovely surprise. This is a restaurant full of heart, and people who not only care about what they're doing and ensuring you have a good night, but also put some really good food on your plate.
Service is a real positive. You're looked after by one of the owners, who can answer your questions about wine and food, and our meal is timed well. The bottles don't come to the tables when they pour the wine, but the bottles do appear on a counter behind you so you can see what you're drinking, if from a slight distance. Not a big distance, since Artisan is not much more than one narrow row of tables along a long bench seat, and with a long bar down the other side. Decoration is minimal. Muted shades of brown, in the leather-look chairs and banquette, gentle lighting over each table.
As well as service, the wine list is another strength. It's a long time since I've sat down to a list and felt spoilt for choice in wines by the glass. Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir, Margaret River Cape Mentelle Chardonnay, Collector Marsanne Roussanne, Pelorus bubbly by the glass. What's it to be? In the end, all of them, plus a pedro ximenez with dessert. And every one enjoyable - the local Collector in particular. It's intriguing and makes you wonder with every mouthful about the grapes that went into this aromatic, floral, clean and highly unusual wine. And makes you realise again why Alex McKay is such a star. By the bottle, also (plus half bottles), the list is well-selected, with modern styles and loads of interest.
The menu is as focused as the wine. Only seven entrees and six mains. They bring some fresh, warm, crusty rolls with olive oil to get us underway. Then we head straight to the red-pepper consomme with beef cheek and coriander ($19), which comes as a pile of blitzed coriander in the middle of a plate, a pile of shredded beef cheek on top, and a jug of clear soup that the waiter pours over at the table. You can see why the broth is poured at the table - it turns a clearly defined series of ingredients into a messy kind of soup. The beef cheek is strong and satisfying, as it should be, but the broth is astringent, even bitter, and not altogether pleasant to my palate.
Our other entree, pork belly braised in Gypsy pear cider, with whitlof and hazelnuts ($19) is also not an absolute success. The pork is unexpectedly mild, full of the squashy fattiness you hope for from this cut and perfectly enjoyable, but in this unobtrusive treatment not greatly interesting. Three hazelnuts, painstakingly peeled of their inner husk, mark the corners of a syrup triangle that borders the meat.
So we're okay with our entrees, thinking they've been fine if not leaving us wildly enthusiastic. But what follows turns an alright start into something of a triumph, and we leave Artisan as fans. The coq au vin ($32) is a case in point. It's been made with plump little spatchcocks, and they arrive at the table on their own little pot, sunk in great lip-sticking, chickeny gravy - a couple of little marylands and a little breast with its wing, all bursting with tender meat. The pot of coq au vin is actually served at the side, and on the plate in front of me is a pile of roasted Jerusalem artichoke, prepared, like the hazelnuts, to within an inch of their lives, so there's none of that crazy artichoke knobbly architecture going on, but just a pile of fat little peeled mounds all soft and sweet from the roasting and full of the flavour of this great winter vegetable. There's a pile of slight salty silverbeet, another good vegetable for the season, and some slippery roast onion.
We're also eating spanner crab and saffron tortellini with lobster and chive beurre blanc ($29), and this dish shows the care that they've all shown to date (and I include the entrees here, despite not judging them an absolute success, they were clearly conceived and put together with care). The pasta parcels are really good - bitey and fresh, and generously filled with a tasty, not insipid, seafood filling. Very enjoyable, if a bit salty again.
Salt strikes on a few occasions tonight.
We've ordered a side of cauliflower gratin ($8) and how happy we are with this bowl. The cauliflower is just so fresh and cooked simply and beautifully, with a mild cheese sauce on top. Old-fashioned, simple, very well handled, highly enjoyable, and like the other ingredients tonight, fantastically seasonal.
We're back at Artisan a week later, and this time, it's the entrees that shine. A plump leg of roast duck ($20) with a sticky orange glaze and fennel seeds giving an aniseed kick on top, and underneath precise little rows of tiny ''pencil leeks'' and parsnip cut to the same thin lines. A fillet of trout ($19) poached in olive oil is delicate, translucent, with firm flesh and very nicely done. The ''bintji potato salad'' underneath is not great, though, with the potato cubes chopped very small and fried.
The exotic mushrooms sauteed with shallots, chives and thyme on artisan caramelised garlic bread with Stilton ($29) is not such a great dish, with plenty of mushrooms on the plate, including a crisp-fried one with tendrils on top, with satisfying little toasts, but the dish is not held together. You want a sort of unifying slipperiness in a mushroom dish.
The dessert menu maintains the interest. You gotta love restaurants where you struggle to choose among good-sounding, interesting dishes. The doughnuts ($14), we just can't resist. Filled with blackberry jam and Chambord and served with creme chantilly and macadamias. How do you say no? They come as a pile of doughnut balls, filled as promised with the jam, but it's not sweet, it's got the bite and bitterness of the berry filling which helps keep a dessert of doughnuts from being overkill.
They're moreish and we like them, as we do also our bitter Callebaut chocolate tart ($14). I could eat this until the cows come home, although it's served too cold, and I don't like the pastry it comes on. Wrong pastry for this dessert, methinks. The mandarin sorbet alongside is great, not sweet and not tart. Perhaps it could do with a little more edge, but mandarin lends such a mild and muted note to desserts that I enjoy it for that oddity alone.
Banana tart tartin ($14) is a triumph - freshly made and still hot, crisp good pastry, precisely placed glazed, good bananas, with almond-milk ice cream and a smear of chocolate.
So Artisan is a good place. It feels like a relatively youthful place staff wise; you don't get the feeling of deep tradition, there's been some slightly awry experimentation, and not every dish has been an unqualified success. But you do get the feeling of great care and passion, a respect for seasons, a respect for ingredients, and a respect for customers. We leave quite buoyed by the experience.
Address: 16 Iluka Street, Narrabundah
Phone: 6232 6482
Owners and chefs: David Black and Sam McGeechan
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, lunch noon-2.30pm, dinner 6pm-10pm
To pay: American Express, Diner’s Club, Mastercard, Visa, Eftpos
Licensed: Licensed and BYO, corkage $15 a bottle
Vegetarian: One entree and one main
Wheelchair access: Accessible throughout, including disabled toilets
Seats: 42 inside, 10 outside
Wine list: 4/4
Value for money: 2/4
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.