Duke Bistro has vibe. The intimate dining room above the Flinders Hotel haunts you with some of the hotel’s past yet brings you into a hip and funky contemporary space that is urban now. It’s the kind of place that makes a girl want to start the night with a cocktail. A rainy Sydney night, a long scenic route from our taxi driver, and we had arrived – late (but a cocktail fixes everything – right?) So that is exactly how Carly and I started our girls’ night out – with cocktails. We knew we’d have fun, yet I’m not sure that we were quite expecting the gastronomic journey that followed.
Nik Hill is the Chef now at Duke Bistro. His food blew me away. With his career starting at Bathers Pavilion under Chef Serge Dansereau, then his training continuing under acclaimed Aussie expat Brett Graham at the Ledbury, Duke Bistro has provided the venue for Nik Hill to hit his stride.
His food is like a childhood secret (the kind you tell your BFF but no one else.) It’s so good you want to keep it to yourself. It has intelligence, heart and passion. His menu has light and shade, and contrasts not only of flavour and texture, but also temperature and temperament. Don’t delay. Go there, take your friends, and rejoice with me.
The tasting menu started with Snacks. First came the creaminess of the ocean tartare with the crunch of toast and kale. Light, refreshing, tantalising.. It’s finger beckoned us further to the next and heartier snack of fried buttermilk chicken. Again creamy and crisp this time in each beautiful morsel. And that led us on to a different chord of elegance – Courgette Flower, Parmesan, Basil - where a perfect parmesan panna cotta was the diva to courgette flowers and veloute. Basil oil created the hint of naughtiness that kept the dish from being just too correct. Magic. Heaven.
Next we were taken even further on a journey into temptation.
The Grated Duck Liver, Chardonnay Lees, Apple epitomises Hill’s food. The liver is frozen; the chill contrasts with its own richness and with the roundness of the apple and elderflower; another note arrives with the gingerbread; and more depth and variation with the jelly of Chardonnay lees. (Check out his recipe) Loved it! Totally loved it. It looked simple enough on the plate. I suppose that’s the surprise. That so much is hidden under the covers. Things you didn’t expect. What’s that word – serendipity?
We moved on to what was essentially cauliflower three ways. Cauliflower, Cured Jowl, Almonds. A celebration of the vegetable: roasted heart, puree, and shaved raw. Almonds in brown butter build on the dish in a classical way. The faintest sliver of unctious pork jowl was the garnish. Applause Chef! Applause!
As each course arrived I exclaimed “I love that ingredient.” Not only was the execution restrained and inspired, Nik was using (yes truly) my favourite flavour profiles. Next came tamarind. Well the dish was Flamed Grilled Bonito, Radish and Tamarind. And with the dish the pendulum had swung from European influence to Asian flavours: shiso vinegar, dashi and soy. The moist flesh of the fish tasted of the grill; a slight smoke pervaded. The cooked and raw radishes wrapped the dish.
We were about to experience even more versatility from Hill. Sauté of Beef, Cabbage, Bone Marrow. Beef two ways bounced: beef brisket, glazed beef shin. Marriages of cabbage and horseradish with the beef. The bone marrow glistened with them. And it also shined when (I stole Carly’s piece) it stood alone. Rich. Warming. Scrumptious.
The dish that made me smile widest, however was still to come.
There’s this incredible meringue that came on the strawberry plate. It’s sharp not sweet with dried elderberry and hibiscus. This offset the buttermilk panna cotta. My fingers picked up the meringue and dipped. My fingers dipped the strawberries in the hibiscus syrup and powder. It’s the kind of dish that makes you playful. I even dipped my finger into the powder and just sucked away at it on its own. Pretty. Delicate. Intriguing. And yes, playful. Strawberry, Buttermilk, Hibiscus.
A course of light before the earthy malty chocolate parfait full stop.
Chocolate, Brown Bread, Malt. Chicory was the prize here. Nik Hill told me he’d learnt to use it at The Ledbury. The bread crumbs tipped the dessert from just another chocolate tart to something closer to home.
I’d be happy to eat this menu every night. This or anything else Chef Nik Hill wants to cook for me.
Duke Bistro at the Flinders Hotel Darlinghurst
63 Flinders Street Surry Hills NSW Australia
+61 2 9332 3180