Circular Quay is a curious place. It’s custom built for tourists and Big Nights. Dining in and around this curve of concrete that hugs the harbour tends to be ‘special occasion territory’. In those circumstances splashing out with the big boys and their toys at Aria, Quay or Guillame (particularly in headier financial times) can be fun. But sometimes you’ve had a meeting, are due at a play and you can’t quite face the tasting plate at Opera Bar- again. Some more choices would be nice.
So it seems Tony Bilson got all benevolent on us and opened up a subterranean baby sister place to his three hatted Bilson’s, right in the thick of the ‘hood. It’s imaginatively named ‘Number One’ – the title isn’t an affirmation- rather its address on Alfred street. NB remembering the address will help. Tucked down below street level, Number One isn’t’ the easiest place to find.
Once you clock it’s exact location you’ll discover a slightly kooky hybrid of outdoor tables with plastic table cloths and a large square dining room that smacks of ‘classic bistro’. Wooden tables- tick. Cloths AND paper on tables- tick. Slightly eclectic European music- tick tick.
Then settle into a corner banquet and take a trip past all the trends that make fickle Sydney-siders loose with their wallets and breezy with their time (read; wine bar/ tapas portions/ churros/ quality quaffable things by the bottle or carafe).
If you can get past that ‘zeitgeist in a box’ feeling then saddling up for a jaunt through Europe isn’t a bad way to pass a couple of hours- even if you’re right in the thick of the real estate with the highest concentration of plastic koala bears in Sydney.
A 500ml carafe light red- on this day a decidedly Australian Mr Frog Pinot- comes in a squat little jug which is poured direct into glasses the table. If you’re after more than a liquid lunch then charcuterie plates and rillettes happily wave hello- but we’re after something heartier to help ward off the winter chills.
Half a dozen escargots and oysters play minor parts as supporting characters like a prelude to the main attractions. The Australian escargots are waifish and slightly reluctant participants; hiding deep in their conical shells.
We narrowly escape a Pretty Woman moment during a left handed wrestle with a snail vice until I discover the true meaning of true love; someone holding your shell steady so you can dig with confidence. While that’s evolving half a dozen Pambula oysters are escorted to the table on an elevated tray of ice. Still attached to their shells these bivalves are a predictable tumble of brine, accompanied by an unnecessary entourage of shallot vinegar.
Then it’s time for the main event. It’s taken us fifteen months to face Cassoulet again after our formidable wade through a peat bog of meat in Toulousse, but suddenly we feel ready to go and stare down the papa bear of ramekins- the size of an ice cream bucket. One thing Cassoulet isn’t is subtle.
In this iteration there’s lamb sausage, duck confit and pieces of pork, sizable whitebeans all mucking in beneath a lawn of breadcrumb crust. What it’s not light on is the salt; but then, what cassoulet ever was? Its Spanish winter cousin that comes out to play is a Cocido- a chickpea stew, spicy with chorizo, sexy and murky with slowly disintegrating pieces of morcilla (spanish blood sausage). Flirting on the side are two whisps of croutons, which provide a temporary crunchy distraction.
There are other players that tiptoe through South America and some more friendly items that could bring faint Asian whispers, but Europe seems to be where the main attractions lie.
In the end Churros with chocolate for dessert may be taking it a step too far; but in dessert- as in all things; it’s nice to have a choice.