If you look for Cafe Paci in Darlinghurst, you’ll find it at the old Cafe Pacifico site – the neon sign is still there, minus the last few letters. What’s been subtracted is no big deal, because what Pasi Petanen has added is phenomenal. It easily qualifies as one of the best new restaurants I’ve been to this year.
When you walk into Cafe Paci, everything is in greyscale – but what’s on your plate comes in full-blast colour and the flavours are dialled up bright. The menu is a fine-dining bargain – $85 for 11 set items, full of expectation-flipping delight. Of course, you suspect you’ll have a good dinner, given that chef Pasi Petanen has a high-grade reputation from his time at Marque (and more recently was at the eternally brilliant Oscillate Wildly), but still, how nice to be knocked out by this 11-part mealtime.
Will had the standard set menu and I had the vegetarian version – both are equally excellent. The dinner starts out with some low-key snacks, including a rye taco that’s a cute throwback to the old Mexican restaurant that used to be here. (Who didn’t have their first-time experience with tacos and tequilas at Cafe Pacifico, back in the pre-Mex-was-everywhere day?) This mini tortilla is a three-bite delivery of rice pudding, chives and egg – the unusual combination catches you offguard in the best way possible.
Accordingly, each menu item here has a little plot twist: a carrot jewellery-crusted in prawn (or mandarin, in my case); a “photato” course that mutates the DNA of the classic Vietnamese noodle dish; a crunchy landmass of togarashi, its flashpoint flavours tempered by smoked capsicum and soft lamb leg tartare (or the vego option of silken eggplant); a “white” salad realised in pickled cauliflower, radish, apple, buttermilk cream; or cabbage showered with cavolo nero dust, mussel butter, marrow and the surprising zing of pomelo pulp.
There’s an unlikely dessert that matchmakes carrot sorbet with yogurt and licorice. “I’m from Finland,” says our waitress, “this is my favourite.” It’s one of several callbacks to Pasi Petanen’s Finnish heritage; one example would be the bread (which takes three days to make) and has a sticky molasses syrup coating – the kind that likes to trap fingerprints, while also adding a sweet flourish to the very rustic dough inside. There’s also the wall mural of an impressive, mustachioed gentleman that the wait staff temporarily fool us into believing is Petanen’s grandfather; in reality, the man depicted is a highly decorated Finnish war hero.
Besides the Finnish streak in the licorice dessert, there’s also a banana/malt/choc concoction that feels like a very adult version of schoolday treats (particularly with the coffee accent and the parsley sorbet); but my favourite would be the cloudbank of popcorn fairy floss that’s entirely coated in butter salt. Unloosening the savoury threads and letting each mouthful dissolve is a cinematic delight.
And just as your meal begins with a nod back to the old Cafe Pacifico restaurant that used to occupy this site, so it ends, too, with an alcoholic tribute – if you’d like to finish your dinner with some throat-burning mescal, that is. Or just enjoy the final sweets: pork crackling encased with chocolate and fennel dust; a eucalyptus koala that every schoolkid wishes was in their recess diet and, if you’re lucky, the chef’s signature take on a certain meringue-and-ganache treat: Ryeroons.
Service is also excellent (especially from sommelier Dennis Roman, who is endearingly referred to as “el mostacho and proud Chilean” on the Cafe Paci site) and, frankly, the only “downside” is that this place will only be around for a year. So, don’t take your time. Fit in as many visits to Cafe Paci as the calendar will allow – this restaurant is brilliant and one of a kind.
Cafe Paci, 96 Riley Street, Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9368 7000, www.cafepaci.com.au.