It's not often that I go out to a dinner and the details of its whereabouts are withheld. Actually, it never happens, until of course you partake in a Secret Foodes outing. The idea behind Secret Foodies is to purchase your ticket online for one of the upcoming events and make your way to the location when you recieve the first of two text messages.
I already knew I was going to a Lamb-a-thon and only found out what suburb it was in 2 hours before I was expected to arrive. Where was it? Randwick. With one hour to go I get another text giving me just the address, not the name of the venue. To spoil the surprise I couldn't help but Google the address and came up with Restaurant Balzac. You beauty!
Chef and owner Matt Kemp has been going strong since 2000 when his restaurant was located in a smaller venue down the road. Four years later he moved into the gorgeous heritage-listed sandstone building it resides in today, a place that had many previous lives - a bank, brothel, butcher, post office and a private girls school. Essex boy Matt moved to Sydney in 1992 and went back to the UK in 1996 where he briefly worked with top chef Phillip Howard at The Square in London. This is where everything he thought he knew about food was thrown out the window and reconditioned to his now unique approach to food.
Lamb-a-thon began upstairs at Balzac in the dimly-lit private dining space. An easy-to-drink autumn sunset cocktail eases us into the evening and before we know it we're taking seat at a long table decorated with golden masks. No, we're not expected to wear them all night. A flurry of bread baskets land on the table followed by a mouth amuser of pumpkin velouté with crisp tongue, served in an espresso cup. The soup is thick and creamy and the crunch from the occasional piece of crispy tongue made me yearn for more than a semi-cupful. Matt, you do know how to tease.
Mere moments pass and we're sampling spoonfuls of roasted beetroot topped with fig and sheeps milk yoghurt. For a second I thought there was a smidge of lamb tartar in the mix but quickly realised it was the figs' glorious innards. Hmm, there's a thought; lamb tartar with fig, beetroot and sheeps yoghurt. It's simple, earthy and again had me wanting more than a mouthful.
Many years ago it was all about the chardonnay for me; those rich buttery and oaky flavours that I couldn't veer away from. I went off it for a while but gradually I'm enjoying the odd lighter chardy such as the 2009 Galli 'La Famiglia from Victoria that was poured to complement our next lamb dish. Salad of roast lamb with confit potatoes. Now we're talking. It's simple in appearance but does wonders on the palate. Tender morsels of well-flavoured lamb coupled with beautiful waxy potatoes topped with micro sprouts and slivers of bitter endive. Perfection.
Next arrival is my favourite dish of the evening and one of Matts signatures - epigramme of hogget and aubergine with peas. Anything with crumbs always gets my attention and when I first laid eyes on the simple arrangement of the crumbed beauty adhered to a smear of pea purée and topped with snow pea sprigs, I knew there was much more to this brief story. We're talking lamb belly marinated with spices, then put in a confit bath. It's drained, it's layered with pan-fried eggplant, pressed, cut, crumbed and fried to the golden deliciousness that was presented before us. My tastebuds were in absolute raptures with its richness, its texture and its complexity.
A 2009 Torbreck "The Juveniles" from the Barossa is poured for the next offering - a seven-hour forequarter of mutton with jerusalem artichokes. Another match made in lamb heaven. The wine, a mix of grenache, shiraz and mataro is easy enough to drink on its own but teamed with slow-cooked lamb and roasted jerusalem artichokes was divine and if it needed anything it may be a bit of something green to cut through the richness.
Dessert came in the form of a trio of sheeps milk cheese with crackers and fruit lubricated by a sugary 2008 Longview 'Epitome' late harvest Reisling from the Adelaide Hills. The stinky blue was by far the outstanding component, not that the others were anywhere near shabby. I loved it all.
Who would've known secrets could be so delicious?Restaurant Balzac141 Belmore RoadRandwick 203102 9399 9660Secret FoodiesDarlinghurst0422 667 488secretfoodies.com.au