I'm sure (no evidence) there are many dozens of restaurants with this name around the world. It's an easy one. But it's also about right for Sean McConnell's bent towards simple, edgy, boundary-free cooking and groovy mismatch set-ups. He's not a restaurateur who is bound by rules or stressed by expectations. He might well be stressed, of course, who knows. Stressed and restaurateur go together so completely as to be almost tautological, as I was reminded the other day when I ran into Christian Hauberg, that gifted chef once of Pulp Kitchen who jumped ship and is now fresh-faced and bouncing with reborn calm on a public service salary. Rebel no longer.
But the name. Perhaps it's generational, but for some of us there's really no avoiding the cultural movement encapsulated by Bowie. Calamity's child! How perfectly does that capture it. The people serving might be the right age to be calamity's children, but they're more like Empathy's Child. How are we? we are asked several times. We! I'm me, you're you! Who is we? This isn't, by the way, confined to Rebel Rebel. It's a standard restaurant greeting and has its equally irritating variants. What do we feel like eating tonight? Catering's version of retail's have a nice day, and this we is not especially on board with it. We also get a drawn out "beauuutifuuul" to our order. So yes, this is the rate-me, rate-you era, when we must all love each other, and boost and support each other with hollow heartfelt tics and ticks. Thank you for telling me my choices are beautiful. Very lovely of you. Now, let's get into them.
What turns out to be our favourite dish of the night arrives first: Corn and manchego croquettes, prawn head aioli ($8 each). I can't think of anything that matches corn's perfect sticky, gelatinous texture, except okra I guess which has the gelatinous part but not the sticky part. Here the fat dumplings have a super-crisp crumb coating and are deepfried, but not so the frying takes over, and they're served with a strong prawn mayo - perfect because for all the excellence of corn's texture and distinctiveness of its taste, it can be bland. These are great.
Tongue is our next favourite. Tongue, peppers, olorosso ($24). The slices of tongue are kind of pasty like they've been beaten up for tenderness. They're charred but otherwise just themselves. Which is of course (first-world) scary by definition. Which is in turn exciting by definition. Alongside are roast peppers and robust parsley leaves. That's it. Nothing cheffy other than the handling of the tongue and no fancy saucing. It's surprisingly good, and its simplicity is what's best about Rebel Rebel. The menu lists three or four ingredients and they are what arrives on the plate. This is what marks the McConnell approach, brought to Canberra with Monster and Mocan and now at Rebel.
Brussels sprouts, nduja, lemon, pangratatto ($19). Well, I'm a brussels fan, but I like the Simon Bryant mooshy treatment. Here, it's strident, crunchy to an extreme and the dish is an assault of heat and lemon, so much so that you get a runny nose. Presumably this is the nduja. So, lemon tang, nduja and that unmistakable mustard sulphur impact of brussels. It's a huge serve. And we quite like this dish in sum.
We don't so much like the dish of cauliflower, burnt butter, cashews, capers ($17). The cauliflower is crunchy, like the brussels, which in this case equates for us to perfectly cooked. There are loads of cashews and burned butter, with fried capers, which are a good tart touch and contrast. But burned butter always tastes like popcorn and I'm not enthusiastic about the association.
Pork neck confit, fennel, cabbage ($32) is full of difficult flavours - perhaps another mark of the kitchen at Rebel. The pork is in thick slices. It's with red cabbage which is pureed, along with mustard seeds which are sour, diced apple which can't cut through, and fennel, always, despite its mixed reception. These are all standard pork accompaniments, but mixed up in the way it's all combined. There's no attempt to make the dish easy, and we're not sure whether this is annoying or admirable.
The wine list is as casually sophisticated as the food, simple and interesting and focused on drinking by the glass.
I said the corn was our favourite, but that isn't counting the rhubarb fool with buckwheat ($18), which is transforming. It reminds me of hours of painful, resentful picking, top and tailing of gooseberries for a hard-fought bowl which my mum turned into gooseberry fool. Such an excellent, luscious old-fashioned dish, captured here in the luxurious creamy rhubarb mousse, mouth filling and luxurious, with fried roast strips of rhubarb and crunchy buckwheat.
Rebel is a place you can go often, with its casual feel, reasonable prices and relaxed menu with no need to trundle through three courses. Likable and fun, not always easy but in parts completely delicious.
Address: Shop 1, 21-23 Marcus Clarke Street, City
Hours: Open daily, 7am to 10pm
Owners: Sean McConnell and Jenny Harders
Chef: Sean McConnell
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian: Lots of good options
Noise: Busy and quite noisy, but not so it's a problem