It ain’t easy being a Surry Hills restaurant. Aside from having Sydney’s top restaurants lurking nearby, you need to be casually cool, have a menu interesting enough to elicit curious anticipation, and, of course, top-notch execution. However, only a few months in, new Sydney restaurant Besser is managing to pull off that tricky trifecta superbly.
As someone who loves just about any Italian food, I wondered how Besser could take me beyond the usual plates adorned with red, green and white (as delicious as those dishes might be). It turns out there was plenty to admire!
Because it’s a Friday night, we start with a La Vacanza, a cocktail that fulfils its promise of being a holiday in a glass. Served with a smoking quill of cinnamon, this was a drink that had us living out some serious vacation fantasies as the grapefruit and cinnamon got our tastebuds ready to party.
We kicked things off simply with a generous supply of juicy olives, and what will go down as the butteriest garlic bread of my life. The Italians are masters at somehow transforming day old bread to a thing of magnificence, and this chewy-in-the-middle, crunchy-round-the-edges starter was no exception. As with most day old bread, it was even better with tomato—so the little dish of passata dusted with parmesan was like a cherry (tomato) on top.
What followed was a testament to our lack of restraint. Yes, we got both the fried things—crispy crumbed lamb fingers and the fried sardines. No, that didn’t stop us from also ordering the raw scampi, the osso bucco, and soft fried potatoes. Our only defence for being called total gluttons were the vegetable crudités with bagna cauda, which I’m sure our bodies thanked us for later. Our only other defence would have been how helpful and friendly our waitress was.
Fortunately, if you’re as greedy as we, Besser are the masters of balance. The soft, sweet lamb encased in those rich fingers sat in a cucumber-studded yogurt sauce. The punchy sardines were tempered with a light touch of dill in the aioli. The rich, sweet scampi was made refreshing with a kiss of gin granita, and the osso bucco, while cooked to fall apart, was blessed with crisp tendrils of crunchy celery. That pungent salty-umami bagna cauda made our heirloom carrot crudités a highlight of our Friday evening—pretty lofty heights for a raw vegetable, really.
Above all that though, I still dream about the donuts (and I’m sorry in advance for teasing if they’re no longer on the menu). They weren’t oozing with Nutella, and they weren’t even particularly large. What they were, however, was a testament to the kitchen’s attention to detail, and again, their mastery of balance. The cinnamon and caster sugar coating resulted in this most perfect crispy texture, and once you got past them, you realised they were served still warm so the interiors were feathery soft. The little cup of coffee granita and vanilla cream played so well together, I must admit I probably got some concerned looks cast in my direction as I finished off the last morsel.
If the true essence of Italian is to do amazing things to simple ingredients, Besser are most certainly nailing it. Some might even call the dishes plain, but I would call that characterisation simple. There’s only one way to find out who’s right though, and the path is sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Image credit: Alessandro Squadrito