Calling your restaurant ACME is some ballsy move. Sure, it’s a convenient merger of people’s initials – taking the first names of everyone involved (Andy Emerson, Cam Fairbairn, Mitch Orr, Ed Loveday) and like a killer Scrabble ploy, reshuffling everything into a slick word that scores you a lot of kudos.
But the title is not just a handy fluke, or an easy way to reference all the players involved; ACME fiercely lives up to its name – this establishment seriously brings its A-game.
In fact, ever since I discovered Mitch Orr was a free agent after leaving 121BC, this restaurant opening would count as the one I’ve been most excited about this year.
And boy, does it deliver. From the start, there’s been no rough-draft rawness; instead, there’s a cracking menu that’s full of touchdowns; smart, witty service; and an atmosphere that has a dash of designer polish, but isn’t so buttoned up to forget to have fun – in fact, it may be the only restaurant in town with a saucy pin-up of George Costanza in the bathroom (“not that there’s anything wrong with that!”).
I’ve been a big fan of Mitch Orr’s food since Duke Bistro – and the way he doesn’t do anything with the safety catch on. You can’t really class a guy as predictable when he can claim high-grade honours (he was named the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year when at Sepia, and has a CV stamped with hatted restaurants), yet he also has a gloriously uncensored approach to cooking – exhibit A, his instant noodles and mushroom broth ‘bong water’ at the Half Baked ‘Stoner Degustation’ (PS Levins says it was “delicious”).
Back when Mitch was at 121BC, I remember him telling me about the top of his wishlist: he wanted to open a joint that had affordable $20-or-so pastas and a killer hip-hop soundtrack one day. Considering that he got a lot of attention for his pasta degustations at Buzo, then reigned with his next-level Italian bar food at 121BC, and followed that by helping out at 10 William Street (which is a pretty fine standard-setter for the restaurant he had planned), it seems like Mitch took the best migration path possible to opening this much-dreamed-about venture. ACME is it, and it’s a damn good comeback goal for someone you’ve been waiting to be in command again.
By the way, in case you think ACME might be a place where you might end up face-deep in a plate of spaghetti sauce, Mitch jokes that it’s “#notanitalianrestaurant”. He’s not really interested in maintaining strict culinary border controls. “We like to think of ourselves more like Chinatown than an Italian resto,” he says.
So, the Linguine, Black Garlic, Burnt Chilli ($12) is actually mi goreng in undercover disguise. “How good is black garlic?! How good is burning shit?!” says Mitch. This is his (fire-extinguisher-courting) take on the aglio olio e peperoncino classic, but it flips nationalities when you least expect it. “Looks dirty and tastes like mi goreng. I did this on the pasta dego at Buzo,” he says, “I added the bread crumbs to replace the crispy shallots you would have with mi goreng in this version.” This dish is as potent as a flame-thrower, and good luck if you’re left unscorched after consuming it. For something so apparently stripped back, it’s feisty as hell. We loved it. (By the way, I know we’re talking ‘sharing portions’, rather than mountainous serves, but where else can you get a 12 buck pasta from such a quality chef? Total score.)
The Macaroni, Pig’s Head, Egg Yolk ($18) is a creation that’s been rerouted via the Philippines, and is inspired by a mind-blowing sisig dish that Mitch actually had at Maharlika in New York; while the Fettuccine ($16) is served with fresh-cut spring vegetables; all that cloud-light flavour ends up grounded in the grit and earth of black sesame seeds, a resounding Asian accent in the classic primavera format.
Mitch is gonna toy with the factory settings of any dish – that’s a signature move throughout this menu. Another connecting point throughout – you can retrace his steps, see where he’s been, stitch together a ‘best of’ compilation of his career so far, just by looking at what he’s serving. For instance, his wry spin on Rockmelon, Prosciutto ($6) got its debut at Sixpenny last year, when he did a guest lunch with other chefs from Italian restaurants. A bite into his Baloney Sandwich ($8) sends you, in hyperspeed, back to the white-bread sambos that monopolised your school lunchbox, always unimaginatively stuffed with deli cuts. This nostalgia trip is his way of side-stepping the whole slider craze, while kinda messing with it, too. The mortadella is bought in, but Mitch makes the tomato sauce and reprises the brilliant potato bread that he first created at 121BC for this bar snack.
The ultra-rich Fried Globe Artichokes ($12) are a good greasy-fingered way to practice your dunking moves, slamming the chokes through a chamomile-soy milk emulsion that Mitch has been making since his Duke Bistro days. The lemon cuts through with its bracing zing.
At 121BC, brown butter did double-duty as something Mitch could drop into savoury dishes, as well as desserts. It’s flat-out addictive, so you can understand why he’d let this ingredient go wild. At ACME, it’s speckled in quinoa and served with long fresh spears of asparagus. Again, this is another dunk-and-drool kinda affair, and it’s ridiculously good. The quinoa-crusted brown butter is like a really adult chocolate crackle in a way – it’s unstoppable, and has a solid hold on you, like salted caramel. Ed Loveday, who heads the bar at ACME, tells us that he’s witnessed diners secretly swiping a taste of the butter with their finger, when they think no one’s looking. And because we totally failed at mastering our asparagus-to-dip ratio, I recover the remaining quinoa-flecked butter from a departing plate that’s about to be cleared and save it for later consumption (like, microseconds later, ‘cos it’s that hard to resist).
All the snacks, by the way, are designed to be interactive and a fun way to make a mess with your hands. There’s a lot of dipping and dunking and expectactions getting overturned. For instance, the Toast, Semi Dried Tomato, Cuttlefish ($12) is “basically bruschetta, let’s be honest”, says Mitch, except that the silky stretch of cuttlefish draped over everything is a play on lardo. “I almost didn’t want to put the word cuttlefish on the menu, just to really fuck with people,” he says. And anyone who lived through the focaccia boom of the 1990s will remember when cafes went on a deranged rampage of sneaking sun-dried tomatoes into any sandwich, sort of as show-off move which ended up ruining the ingredient for everyone in the process. Mitch tries to rehabilitate the ’90s relic (as they’re actually “pretty tasty things” that were just victims of being “played out and over-killed”), by using smashed up tomatoes that have been seasoned and dried in-house to layer on top of the crusty bread. Our friend Marie rates this – toasting this toast.
Name-checking your favourites at ACME is like waiting for someone to wind-up their dragged-out acceptance speech – it just takes too damn long ‘cos there are too many things to list, and you’re forever raiding out your memory banks ‘cos you don’t want to forget anything. But, without a doubt, one of the dishes I totally flip out over is the Lasagna ($20) – a reaction seconded (and thirded) by many diners, as it’s the bestselling item by far at the restaurant. This is a mutation of something Mitch first produced at Duke Bistro; in its current version, it layers pasta sheets with a flavoursome jackpot of nameko, shiitake, shimeji, wood ear and enoki mushrooms, salty smears of sheep’s curd and dustings of rosemary powder. Is it redundant to even remark how awesome it is?
Will’s out-and-out fave is the Wholemeal Bucatini, Goat, Nduja, Olive dish ($22), which packs a hefty amount of firepower (like the burnt chilli Linguini), and is dialled up with plenty of flavour. (If you need some fresh counterprogramming for all this richness, getting the Carrot, Watercress, Verjus salad is not a bad move). Incidentally, Mitch first used this bucatini ingredient combo at Buzo, but inspiration for this creation goes all the way back to his third job in the industry, when working at Euro Lounge in Castle Hill with Elvis Abrahanowicz (long before Elvis ruled at Bodega and Porteno). It takes Elvis’s lamb, chorizo and mint ravioli and completely switches it around.
So you can see, in a snapshot, how ACME’s menu is Mitch essentially tweaking and twisting his track record, elevating and updating previous experiments and reconfiguring them – spring-loading former ideas with fresh surprises, and shaping them into this new #notanitalianrestaurant setting.
One menu concept Mitch won’t take credit for is the Pickled Cucumber ($4), which has a boozy buzz when you bite into it. If you’re wondering whether this snack might register an over-the-limit reading, that’s because it’s been sloshed and preserved in gin & tonic. This fun concept is Ed Loveday’s idea. “It’s the pickle that pickles you!” he says.
Ed (who, like co-owners Cam and Andy, has been involved with The Passage) looks after the cocktails, which reflect the playful, unfussy menu – for instance, there’s a Purple Drank (beetroot-infused gin) and Strawberry concoction (I’ll have anything with yuzu and shiso in it; the vodka and berry is just a bonus). The drinks list isn’t strict Italian, ‘cos neither is the food; there’s a focus on natural wines, and if you’re happy to just sink some tea throughout your meal, that’s cool at ACME (the brews are by Tea Craft, incidentally).
Of course, after you’ve enacted a clean-up operation on every dish you’ve ordered, you’ll want to smash some desserts. Even though Mitch says sweets aren’t exactly his strong point, his offerings are definitely worth plotting towards. Unlike restaurants that offer some stomach-crippling chocolate bomb or other over-rich creation that will stop you dead, the menu here acknowledges that you’ve been blitzing through a lot of pasta, and probably don’t need something OTT. So all the items here are light and bracing. The closest to a ‘pig-out’ option is the Jamie-Oliver-inspired Maltesers Ice Cream with candied bacon ($10). The Jerusalem Artichoke Ice Cream ($10) might seem leftfield, but comes with not-so-leftfield hazelnut praline and is a good alternative for anyone who prefers hitting the savoury end of the menu instead of the desserts list. And the Nashi Pear Sorbet ($10) is ultra-refreshing – super-clean, crisp, and pitched just sweet enough. This dairy-free option also pairs nicely with rosemary meringue that’s cleverly made from all the excess egg whites left over from the pasta dough.
So before winding up my field guide to ACME, I should credit the splashy yet laidback interiors to Luchetti Krelle, the studio that seems to have designed all my fave joints around town (from Momofuku Seiobo to Hinky Dinks). Do check out the downstairs island bar, which is so slick that you could totally imagine a Bond villain commanding it while hatching world domination plans or general major-league villainy. The group table is also very swanky, too. The design manages to cleverly pack in 60 seats in a roomy way.
If you were keeping score, you’d definitely say ACME is an A-grade restaurant. It’s the kind of place you fall in love with on incredibly short notice – it’s one of my favourite new restaurants of 2014, without a doubt. And it’s not just about the menu. The music and atmosphere is ace, too. The place is run by a team that can back up their sense of fun with some serious cred and experience. Plus, they all love Seinfeld. And there’s nothing wrong with that – or any of the above – at all.
Acme, 60 Bayswater Rd, Rushcutters Bay NSW (02) 8068 0932, www.weareacme.com.au.