I don't think I'd ever gone to the upper levels of the Strand arcade before. I didn't even know there was a third level. I also didn't know there was a decent Italian restaurant in the CBD. Truly a night of firsts.
Let me backtrack. I have grown to heavily dislike Italian food in Sydney. Too many overpriced meals, not enough simplicity. Perhaps the two are linked. Italian cuisine is blessed with a wealth of ingredients, a wealth of classic recipes and flavour combinations. Why is it so hard to do this, and do it simply?
Thankfully, things are changing in Sydney. An Italian revolution is happening. Pendolino is a part of that.
I dip the bread in the selection of olive oils and ponder what has been one of my toughest menu decisions of recent times. There is too much that I want to eat. My stomach is rumbling with delight at the mere thought of these dishes.
I start with a dish that I love and that I cook often. It's a take on an insalata caprese, that ultra-fresh combination of basil, ripe tomato and buffalo mozzarella. It's a dish that is so blindingly simple, yet so many restaurants have failed to execute it well. Pendolino gives me the best version I have ever tasted. Instead of the buffalo mozzarella we have some burrata (mozzarella with cream), we have some pieces of bread as croutons, some cress and it's all in a pool of what I think is burrata cream. It's classy, it's fresh, it's obscenely delicious.
I also have some of the air-dried wagyu carpaccio. It's quite nice, but the peccorino it's served with overpowers the subtleness of the beef a little. Still, a solid dish.
Main course time and shit gets real. Saffron risotto with slices of a pork and fennel (I think) salami. The dish is placed down and I wonder if they've forgotten to put something in the bowl. It looks sparse. I try it and realise that it has everything it needs. Possibly more. This is one of the best risottos I've ever had at a restaurant. Granted, most of them have been horrible, but Pendolino's version nails it. The texture is runny, but not soupy. The grains of rice have a sublime texture. Every single one is a joy to eat. The few slices of salami on top add another rich, aromatic layer. I savour every spoonful.
I almost don't want to risk getting dessert, in case it ruins the rest of the meal. But I'm greedy so I proceed. The campari poached pear tart. And I'm glad I risked it. Simple, but elegant. A great balance of sweet (the pear, some cream), savoury (a biscuit base) and sour/bitter (a slight hint of campari on the backpalate).
But as we wait for the bill it all kind of hits me. It's not a great restaurant, despite the food.
The service has been a little clumsy, for a start. They all try their hardest but it just doesn't quite work. The special is forgotten, the sommelier arrives at the wrong time, the staff speak loudly at the open kitchen, the olive oil is taken while bread is still there to be dipped (in our hand, no less), water isn't topped up fast enough. They're small things, but they add up. It all feels too complicated for the food.
And the prices. Yes, the ingredients are excellent and the food was superb, but entrees are $20-25 and mains are around $30-40. I don't see the value. The value that would keep me coming back over other new Italian restaurants popping up. It hasn't stopped the fashionable ladies out on the town for the night, but they've never been great judges of anything, really.
Like the pendulum swinging back and forth, I swing between love and slight disappointment with Pendolino. The food is superb, but the experience is unfulfilling. Maybe this isn't the Italian restaurant I'm waiting for? Maybe I need to wait a little longer for an Italian place that has food like this (maybe less refined) that has happy, laid-back staff and mains closer to $20. Maybe the noise and the darkness of the room is dragging me somewhere I don't want to go?
Will I be back? Probably. But when? I don't think I'll rush back. But that food! That menu! I think they have two options for where to take this place: drop prices by around $5 for the entress and mains, relax the staff, aim for smart casual. Or they could tighten up the service, introduce a tasting menu and aim for 2 hats.
RATING: Okay, may go back [?]