A collective sigh of relief was exhaled throughout Sydney, as soon as A1 Canteen opened its doors to the public. Has ever a photo of a fried eggplant, provolone and romesco sandwich done the media rounds, the way Clayton Well’s did back in November 2017? It really doesn’t help when publications and PR alike, play the long game of peddling such Instagram-worthiness well over six months in advance. Cruel temptresses, the lot of you.
But /endrant, what matters is the now, and we are now at A1 Canteen which looks like anything but. It’s all high-ceilings and windows to yield plenty of light (if you were dining by day) and comfort-meets-luxury chairs, handpicked by Wells himself. Be smart and opt for a seat by the window for unabashed people watching along Kensington Street.
Tua Tua clams, anchovy butter, preserved lemon $26
The meal kicks off with these Tua Tua clams, much larger than the pipis I am more familiar with when dining Golden Century or other similar Cantonese joints. Each clam is exceedingly plump and made juicier by the presence of the silky anchovy butter. I enjoyed the threads of preserved lemon and the way they shocked the tongue, just as you’re getting used to ribbons of umami-laden fat. The other half of the dining party, an avid fisher, remained less convinced by the produce itself, for reasons I cannot seem to remember.
Torched bonito, bonito emulsion, malt vinegar onions $21
Bonito has been making a resurgence over the last few years. No longer relegated to the bench for katsuobushi or to merely be used as bait, katsuo is now taking a prideful place at the dinner table. A1 Canteen dishes out a whole lot of justice with this fish, searing it so there isn’t a chance of overcooking (in the same way you wouldn’t over cook tuna) and soldering harmony together by bathing it in its own emulsion. The vinegar onions play a role similar to the lemons in the previous dish, a nice bit of zing to elevate what might have turned into a heavily savoury dish.
Whole flounder, espelette pepper, fried curry leaves $44
The whole flounder was my non-negotiable on the night and turned out to be the crowd favourite. There is a meaty abundance to the fish, cooked to the point of substance and doused in the espelette so there is a considerable bite. The curry leaves add an aromatic punchiness and a little crunchiness, all of this is action that sits just above simple, white flesh. I will happily order an entire fish, even if it’s dinner for two, maybe even dinner for one. Inhaling fish off the bone is a special joy and vastly supersedes cooking just fillets. I would rank this as one of the best whole fish dishes I’ve had of late.
Broccolini, green cauliflower, lemon dressing $14
For a brief moment, we considered ordering the herb salad, but even we weren’t convinced at this half-assed attempt to incorporate greens into the meal. This led to our slightly more solid vegetable choice, a side of broccolini mixed with Romanesco cauliflower and lemon dressing. A great accompaniment to the flounder and could probably even hold its own as a main dish.
Grilled goats cheese, fermented pear, sherry caramel $16
An order of cheese just makes the cut before we’re about to hit home. I’ve been trying to cut out as much dairy and gluten from my diet as possible but may have succumbed to a few small nibbles of this as I can never resist goats cheese. I loved how melty it was and how well its pungency played with the pear and sour-sweet sherry caramel.
This first introduction to A1 Canteen reminds me of those intelligent hallway conversations you have with that friend or colleague you never really got to know but have an instant connection with. Much like its teasing sandwich photo, I like A1 Canteen but I know I want more, and there is so much more on this dinner menu, not to mention breakfast, brunch and that eggplant sandwich. Such conversations always end with a whole lot of lingering as you wait for someone to be the first to part. This time, that was me, but hey Clayton and team, I’ll be back for more.