We had read in a weekend newspaper lift-out that Ad Lib was Dietmar Sawyere’s latest venture following the closure of Forty One Restaurant and were rather excited about it being situated quite close to us. One evening whilst watching television, Monsieur Poisson quite offhandedly commented, “So, have you booked Ad Lib for my birthday yet?” Not surprisingly this was met with my mumbled, “Errr, no…?” before my mind started setting into guilty panic in having not organised anything at all. And this was after finding out that he was taking me to Tetsuya’s for my birthday, oh dear.
Truth of the matter is that neither of our birthdays were the main event for me this year. We had both arranged to take leave from work during the week which falls in between our birthdays and booked to spend a few of those days at the Hunter Valley (posts about that to come soon…ish). This was what I was really looking forward to and everything else didn’t register much on the radar. So the following day I made an online enquiry with Ad Lib whilst at work, with only a week’s notice, and was met with a most helpful response suggesting two dining times – one early and one late. I took the later one but did receive a telephone call on the evening telling us that the table was ready ahead of time. Although Ad Lib was already quite heavily booked, I do like a place which doesn’t shrug off ‘excess’ customers and that has good lines of communication.
And so, after having driven past it on our way up to the Hunter and again on our way back, we finally find ourselves seated in the cosy bistro on the Friday evening that is my husband’s birthday. We’re seated at a table near the doorway which is protected from prying eyes by a bookcase with square alcoves housing many, many bottles of pear liqueur and brandy. Each table setting has a fold-out paper menu and there is crusty sourdough and butter already set in the centre awaiting our arrival.
Everywhere we go both Monsieur Poisson and I have a habit of being suckered in by the specials menu and this particular evening is no different. For entrées, we order the soup of the day – potato, leek and black truffle – as well as the ‘Charcuterie, pickles, sourdough toast’ to share. The soup has that unmistakeable earthy mushroomy aroma that is black truffle emitting from the silky potato soup. It is hot but not scaldingly so but I take care not to have too much of this as I’m sure there’s a lot of cream involved – unfortunately my stomach and cream are not the best of friends.
Cured meats rate highly in my world of food but I’m afraid I can’t remember the individual names of those pictured on the plate above apart from liverwurst. Pickled gherkins always help to cut through the fat and salt of the meats and the sweet onion jam is sticky and mellow. All wonderful piled onto the sourdough toast. The cuboid meat pieces at the front of the plate worryingly remind me of pet chews but rest assured that they are very tasty!
There is a steak on the menu with café de Paris butter but I go against my usual persuasions and order the ‘Roast duck breast, confit leg, calvados and apples’ instead. It arrives and its appearance has us both intrigued – what are these things which resemble spring rolls? Turns out they are the duck leg component and we can only assume that the confit meat has been parcelled up inside. The shredded meat in the rolls is a little gamey in sharp contrast with the breast which is tender with skin which has been liberally seasoned. The celeriac purée, grilled apples and sauce all help to cut through the rich meat. The apple wedges are a particular delight and wouldn’t be out of place in a dessert.
Monsieur Poisson has gone with the special of ‘Braised beef cheeks, potato mash, bacon, mushrooms and eschallots’ which is rather large when it arrives. His dish is about twice the size of mine and proves itself to be extremely good value both in terms of dollars and hunger-satiating potential. The mound of potato mash is flanked by two generous pieces of beef cheek which are soft and fork-apart tender. The sauce has all the components of a bourgignon minus the red wine and, as a result, is much lighter on the palate.
We have greedily ordered a side of cauliflower gratin. Once it arrives, I question myself as to why I agreed to Monsieur Poisson wanting to order it – gratin equates to cream, lots of it, and, as mentioned above, is not good friends with my stomach. I scrape away most of the sauce, which is actually rather thick, and revel in the tender yet still crunchy florets of cauliflower and the crusty, browned cheesy topping.
We take a break before considering dessert, especially after my husband’s epic proportions of a main dish, although we had already both eyed what we wanted from the moment we first perused the menu. We are creatures of habit so it is the ‘Pear tarte tatin, white chocolate ice-cream’ for him and the raspberry soufflé for myself. But not before his usual caffe latte and my pot of Earl Grey tea. The Earl Grey here is quite fragrant and stronger in flavour than most so if it is one of your preferred varieties then I urge you to try it here.
Our after-dinner drinks are presented with a pair of chocolate truffles curiously sitting in a pool of molten chocolate. It takes us some time to work out whether the centres of the chocolates have exploded, whether the shells have been melted or whether they are indeed sitting in extra sauce. Nonetheless they are smooth and very chocolaty, if a little messy to eat!
The tarte tatin arrives resembling a miniature pineapple upside-down cake and is beautifully crusty and flaky. The ice-cream is too sweet for my liking but I find that is often the case with white chocolate. The thin caramel sauce surrounding the tarte is thankfully not overly sugary nor sticky.
But it is the soufflé which steals my heart in all its tall, proud, dusty pink glory. Light as a feather without even a trace of runniness at the bottom, it is enhanced further in berriness by the tart sorbet alongside sitting on a bed of tuille crumbs.
For those wanting a bit of performance to their dessert, order the chocolate mousse. We saw it being brought out in a soup tureen and spooned out to customers. Something for us to keep in mind for future at a place where the service is unpretentious and the food is the focus. They have an extensive wine list which we didn’t indulge in that evening, and have just earned their first Sydney Morning Herald Chef’s Hat to boot.
1047 Pacific Hwy (near cnr Telegraph Rd), Pymble NSW
Tel: 9988 0120
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri from 10am for coffee and snacks
Sat 5pm-10pm (dinner only)
*EDIT*: As at June 2012, Ad Lib Bistro is closed for business.