As a self-proclaimed feminist, I occasionally find myself troubled by the fact that I am instinctively drawn to a retro look. I love the Dior “New Look” silhouettes, polka dot dresses, floral prints, and don’t even get me started on the amount of time I spend window-shopping on Modcloth. Just because I love the styles and fashions of a certain era however, I most certainly am not drawn to the retro attitudes towards women, and the blatant misogyny and stereotyping that you can find in shows like Mad Men…and to a certain extent, in people of older generations.
Deeply troubling philosophical contemplation aside, the truth still remains that I delight in retro, vintage, reclaimed, old-fashioned style. The Cottage Bar and Kitchen in Balmain definitely has these qualities in abundance, designed to feel like a visit to Grandma’s house from the moment you step through the gate into the rambling garden and through to an overly-floral-printed living area and dining room with a large handmade wooden table that’s been around for decades.
The whole restaurant has a lovely relaxed and homely feel about it – it’s stylishly retro, but unpretentious and definitely not a dominion of the cooler-than-thou hipster crowd. On the weeknight that K and I visit, we are seated near a large family group out celebrating a birthday, as well as pairs and groups of young stylish urbanites out for a drink and a bite to eat. Friends who live in the area also report that the restaurant bar is a real hub of activity on Friday and Saturday nights as well – the restaurant easily caters to all demographics.
This theme extends through to the menu, with the use of gorgeous hand-drawn rustic-style illustrations on the menu – not to mention the ornate old-fashioned font choice for the title. As we try to make our choices for the evening, it’s obviously that Head Chef Ellen Young has drawn on the inspiration of Nanna’s cooking and created modern interpretations of the classics with a generous twist of multiculturalism thrown in for good measure. Instead of a roast chicken, it’s “Chicken with rice pilaf, dried fruit, yoghurt and pistachio”. Instead of roast lamb, it’s “Lamb shoulder with falafel, tabouli and spiced yoghurt”. We struggle with deciding what to order (everything looks so good!), and finally the venue manager takes pity on us and gives us his recommendations.
Most importantly out of the recommendations are the cocktails! The cocktail list at The Cottage features enticingly old-fashioned names like “Mum’s Apple Pie”, “French Maid”, and “Hemingway Daiquiri”. I see the neighboring table indulging in the three punch bowls that are also on the cocktail menu – Passion Punch, Strawberry White Wine Sangria and Pimms Punch, and others in the bar indulging in what looks like the mojito and iced teas. The bartender is certainly kept busy all night, from the point we walked in till late.
I choose the “Remember Me in the Morning”, as recommended by the venue manager. With a name like that, you would imagine the cocktail to have dire results with the alcohol going straight to one’s head, encouraging irresponsible decisions and regrets in the morning. Instead, it proves to be a light, fruity cocktail that definitely goes down very easily and demands immediate replacement upon finish. K chooses the Young Botanical with gin and elderflower liquer. Combined with a mix of mint and cucumber, the Young Botanical is reminiscent of a mojito, but with more depth of flavour and herbaceous tones.
We start with an entree – a pumpkin-ful dish that consisted of pumpkin done three ways – mashed (or moussed, however you want to say it!), pickled and the pumpkin seeds. The mousse is definitely the highlight in this dish – the sweetness of the mashed (moussed) pumpkin contrasted beautifully with the saltiness of the goats cheese, and worked well on both the bread and crackers with a few pepitas sprinkled on top for crunch. This is definitely a dish for sharing, and could easily be shared between four people for a light entree.
I often think that the quality of a restaurant can often be judged by the quality of their seafood dishes – it can be very hard to cook things like mussels or calamari well without overcooking the dish. This is a constant source of frustration, as I simply love seafood and am often frustrated about how poorly it’s been cooked! The Cottage’s Wharfle pot didn’t disappoint though – the mussels and vongole were still tender, releasing a burst of soupy flavours in your mouth as soon as you bit into them. There was a surprisingly lack of liquid in this dish (the ingredients were more steamed than stewed), but what there was wonderfully rich, having absorbed all the flavours from the seafood. Soaking up the soup with the soft white bread provided was simply heavenly.
There’s something to be said about restaurants that put their customer’s dining experience first. When we ordered the chicken, our waitress advised us that this dish does take up to half an hour to cook, and made sure that we were happy to wait a bit longer for this to arrive. That’s definitely above and beyond service I’ve received in other restaurants where I’ve ended up waiting up to an hour for my meal with no explanation whatsoever! This delay in the meal actually worked really well, as we had enough time to tackle both the pumpkin entree and the intricacies of eating crab in the Wharfle Pot.
When the dish arrived, it was clear to see why the chicken had taken the amount of time it did – the skin was perfectly crispy and the meat tender and juicy. The creamy citrus-tinged yoghurt went well with the chicken, and was delightful on its own as well. The rice pilaf was well seasoned with subtle spices and the dried fruit.
Some of my favourite books as a child were Enid Blyton’s “Circus” series, which followed the adventures of two children who travelled with the circus. I fell to sleep dreaming of fairy floss and popcorn – all the more desirable because my family wasn’t very well off when I was growing up and going to a fair or a circus was definitely out of the question. As soon as I saw this on the menu, this had to be my choice for dessert – and I certainly didn’t regret it! This. This dish. It. Blew. My. Mind. The caramelised popcorn was just incredible, and the Turkish style fairy floss soft and airy. The marshmallows were incredibly light and moreish, and the mini toffee apples (made with dried apples) just a flavour explosion. Each part of the dish simply transported me back to the dreams I had as a child of running off and joining the circus.
K ordered a slice of the key lime pie, which proved to be just the right mix of sweet and tart. I found it quite dense and rich by itself, but when combined with the light and airy rum cream, it’s just right in your mouth.
As we left The Cottage, completely satiated and satisfied, I began planning my next visit. It’s my birthday soon, and I’m at that stage of life where all I want to do to celebrate is to get together with a small group of friends in a comfortable setting with good food and cocktails…the Cottage definitely fits that description!
Overall, I rate The Cottage a comfortable 8.5 out of 10 – the cocktails are superb, the food comforting and homely, and the decor quaint and cosy. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and it’s great to see independent neighborhood meeting points thriving in the suburbs!
Gourmanda dined as a guest of The Cottage Bar and Restaurant. The meal was complimentary, but all words and thoughts are my own.