The name Dead Ringer might evoke mirror images and carbon copies – so it’s ironic that this new Surry Hills bar is unlike anything else around in Sydney. But its one-of-a-kind impact is what makes it so great; and, like Automata, it’s one of my favourite places to open this year.
Dead Ringer is by Tim Philips and the team behind Bulletin Place, a Sydney institution that has won so many bar awards that I’m surprised the guys ever bother leaving the podium. So, of course, your thirst is not going to be neglected here. Accordingly, the menu changes daily (a weather report, freshly-stamped on the page, reminds you of this) – and not just because dishes are reshaped according to what’s in market and in season; the wines by the glass also shift on that quick-time basis, too.
The cocktails include a White Sangria ($12), which gets a dramatic spritz of absinthe when it arrives; there are also nostalgia-evoking drinks, such as the candy-store fizz of Yuzu Breezer ($17), complete with an approved Bacardi-like label, and the confectionery aisle flashback of the Red Dinger ($17), which features gin made with those hard sticks of Redskins lollies we sucked/struggled to chew as kids. And you’ve probably heard of Dead Ringer’s Hot and Cold Buttered Toddy ($14), which is currently made with burnt butter and sage gelato from Gelato Messina. This calorie-rich combination is its own obvious selling point.
The food is also worth plenty of attention, too. The brief for it was “farmhouse rustic” and Tim Philips (who’d been to the aptly-named Farmhouse Kings Cross 17 times) found the perfect person to execute it – Tristan Rosier, previously co-head-chef at the aforementioned restaurant.
So you don’t have to worry about subsisting only on generic peanuts or lining your stomach with handfuls of pretzels when you head to Dead Ringer. The food is as considered as the drinks list; there’s nothing standard-issue about it – in fact, it’s really damn good.
Naturally, the snack game is really strong here. The Pasta Chips ($6) are crackly, deep-fried strips of lasagna sheets flecked with fennel seeds. You dunk them into a cheese custard garnished with Parmesan shreds and crunch away, enjoying how ridiculously good this one-two savoury punch is. The pasta was originally going to be penne, but ended up in its current configuration because these twisted, crisp curls seem like they could be understudies for corn chips, and the addictive Parmesan cream semi-evokes American nachos. But this great snack is not going to make you miss Dorito’s in any way.
When I saw the ‘Creamed Almonds – Sesame – Grape’ ($8) listed on the menu, I couldn’t decode what kind of dish it was, so I asked the (really lovely) waiter. He explained that it was a dip, and if he hadn’t added that it was his favourite item, I probably would’ve skipped right past it. Unless you’re at a good Middle Eastern restaurant, ‘dip’ has a bland office-party-platter reputation and is usually the default order when you’re stuck at a pub with an indecisive group and no one can commit to actually asking for anything proper/interesting. So, yeah, it’s usually not going to spike anyone’s heart rate.
But the creamed almond dish at Dead Ringer is so next-level amazing that it might give hummus an inferiority complex. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much game over, hummus – this bar’s creation is so incredible that I’d break up with the classic Middle-East-reigning dip over it.
Like a lot of the food at Dead Ringer, you ‘get’ this dish straight away; it’s just instantly, win-you-over delicious. But there’s nothing flatly simple about what’s on your plate, either – you can tell that the head chef has dropped a lot of thought into every creation. The creamed almonds are ultra-flavoursome because they’re a thickened version of ajo blanco, with verjus instead of water and a dollop of tahini, too. The dip is garnished with toasted sesame seeds, and given extra dimension with the herbal ‘pop’ of oregano leaves and a cluster of dehydrated grapes marinated in sherry.
Taking slices of the deeply oil-drizzled and char-grilled-as-hell bread and scooping it right through this creamy, garlicky concoction is totally delightful. I think I said “this is amazing” three times in a row when I first tried it.
This dish feels like it’s not-so-distant cousins with the Jerusalem Artichokes with Broccolini Puree ($24) – which sets the sweetly roasted root vegetables in a fresh, creamy blitz of ingredients. It’s rounded out with some agrodolce and greens so crackly and charred that they look like they’ve been dropped into a forest fire. I love this, too.
Like a lot of dishes at Dead Ringer, it comes branded with plenty of scorch marks; the Roman Beans ($10) are a pretty good example of this – even if the black, blistery burns are hidden under a good shower of fried eschallots and fiery doses of chilli, too.
A menu highlight for Will is the Roast Chicken ($29), which stays memorably juicy, as it’s been brine-injected – and accordingly has that double-shot of extra flavour, because it’s thoroughly seasoned inside. The free-range Bannockburn bird is a decent size (originally 1500g), and so is given plenty of oven time to get right. The fact it’s slow-cooked for hours also gives the skin a great crackle, too. “It’s a little extra work, but when serving a simple dish like roast chicken with cavolo nero and a jus, it better be bloody good,” says chef Tristan.
Beef Tartare ($16) is not your average bistro take, either; here, it’s given the zing of pickled eggplant and the shattery crunch and confetti-like scatter of potato ‘paper’.
You can tell that the desserts aren’t lazy exercises, too. There’s the Pickled Pineapple ($10), which is diced and layered with soft whipped cream, poppyseed shortbread crumbs, yoghurt granita and tiny dehydrated pineapple shards. It’s inspired by Tristan being downed by a vicious flu for a week while in New York, earlier this year. After not being able to stomach anything for days, the first thing he consumed was “some petty sharp pickled pineapple, which really gave those tastebuds a good kick!” he says. Accordingly, this dessert is full of bracing flavours that definitely jolt your senses back to life.
In line with the memory-lane feel of the drinks menu, the Toffee Ice Cream ($10) is also an escape hatch to your childhood. Tristan blankets the dessert with both chocolate custard and the rubble of malt biscuit, honeycomb and bee pollen, saying it’s his “more adult version of a Golden Gaytime (the best ice cream ever made!)”. It’s a lively, texture-rich dish, full of brisk flashes and hints of chocolate, burnt sugar, honey and a granular crunch of malt that reminds me of digging through tins of Milo as a kid and just freely demolishing those choc-malt crumbs by the heaped spoonful. (This is also another menu highlight for me.)
I also love the Pear Bonbon ($3) – which you’re instructed to pop into your mouth, entirely whole. And as soon as you do, you wonder if it’s a wise move – as it feels like you’ve got an unmanageable boulder crammed into your mouth and there’s no way to downsize it or elegantly deal with your bonbon-locked jaw. Then, you somehow manage to clomp through and shatter this confectionery-like asteroid, and bam, there’s a cold explosion of iced-pear and maraschino cherry liqueur, bursting through a shell of cocoa butter, chocolate and choc-biscuit crumble. It’s totally fun, and (like everything else at Dead Ringer) is smartly put together. (I’ve tried this sweet alongside several people and none of us could accurately detect the pear element before being shown the answer sheet – the menu’s like this guessing game you constantly lose, because everything is so cleverly assembled that you could never pinpoint Tristan’s tricks.)
It’s also delightful yet sophisticated – and truly likeable. Dead Ringer has an all-of-the-above charm – it’s a bar with a drinks list that’s clever (but not pretentious); a high-grade menu that you don’t need to overwork your IQ to enjoy; it’s got a restaurant-style section at the back and casual courtyard upfront, so covers pretty much most vibes you’re after; and who is going to say no to a nice place with table service, and not having to change venues just to get really good food after you’ve blitzed through drinks? Plus, you can book, too; and the staff members seem really approachable and switched on.
I couldn’t mistake Dead Ringer for anything else – and even though I’m sure so many people would want to clone its unique appeal, I’m glad it’s stand-alone brilliant for the time being.