Penelope’s serves a mix ‘n’ match menu and a new harbour bridge view from the Quay Quarter tower at Circular Quay

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Flavours from all over the city make unusual friends on Penelope’s adventurous menu.

Terry Durack

14/20

Contemporary$$

You think you know all there is to know about a city, and then you go to dinner and sit on a terrace with a view you’ve never seen before. The snatch of harbour and arc of bridge is familiar, but it’s never been framed by these office towers, in this street. It’s different. A new way to look at something old.

It turns out that’s the best way to frame Penelope’s as well, with its open-air terrace on the first level of the dazzling Quay Quarter tower, and an adventurous menu that draws on influences from all over Sydney.

Co-owner and executive chef Cuong Nguyen has never been short of an idea at his contemporary Vietnamese Hello Aunties in Marrickville and Darling Square, and Hey Chu in Castlereagh Street.

Now he’s teamed up with head chef Bremmy Setiyoko (formerly Sepia) and front-of-house manager Lee Potter Cavanagh (Rosenbaum & Fuller) to explore and express all three of their cultural backgrounds. Nguyen and Potter Cavanagh grew up in Sydney, while Indonesian-born Setiyoko moved to Sydney as a young adult. Their menu, they say, is what they like to eat; what they consider to be “Sydney food”.

Salt and pepperberry squid.
Salt and pepperberry squid.Wolter Peeters

That means house flatbread with toum; raw scallop with crispy potato; a prawn cocktail with bush tomato Marie Rose; pork and prawn ravioli; and pavlova with wattle-seed custard and champagne jelly.

The popular “Lakemba-spiced lamb” is flavoured with Middle Eastern spices (cumin, coriander, fennel, cinnamon) and glazed with soy and balsamic in lieu of pomegranate molasses.

I admit to being slightly mystified about the mix of dishes, but I’m embracing it. Let’s see where it takes us.

Design-wise, Penelope’s is a smooth customer, but then, all the Quay Quarter venues are well put together, from Pearl and Belles Hot Chicken to Martinez. There’s a big stage of a kitchen, young staff doing their best, and tables colonising all view-worthy spots inside and out on the terrace.

I like most of the things I’m eating as individual dishes; I’m just not entirely convinced I need them all on one menu.

You can drop in for a salt and vinegar martini ($25) and, for the symmetry, salt-and-pepperberry squid ($25) that’s good, snacky and as salty as promised, served with lime, crisp-fried curry leaves and a big dollop of aioli. Extra points for the super-crisp legs, proof they’ve brought in whole squid.

Go-to dish: Hummus, soft-boiled egg and green shallot oil.
Go-to dish: Hummus, soft-boiled egg and green shallot oil.Wolter Peeters

Stay, though, for the hummus – smooth, and chickpea-nutty, with green shallot oil, quarters of charred flatbread and soft-boiled eggs ($25). I’m not entirely sure where it’s coming from, apart from the Middle East, but it’s very well made.

Then there’s the bakar chicken ($42), as much an homage to the chef’s mother’s ayam bakar, as to Lebanese charcoal chicken. Brined before barbecuing, it’s coated with a fragrant, punchy paste of shallot, garlic, ginger, sweet soy, lemongrass, turmeric, makrut lime and palm sugar that’s almost too intense.

The fact that it is served on a bed of creamy garlicky toum, however, does my head in a bit. And do the kombu-dusted fries ($12) go with the chicken, or the toum, or neither?

The bakar chicken blends Indonesian and Lebanese influences.
The bakar chicken blends Indonesian and Lebanese influences.Jennifer Soo

I like most of the things I’m eating as individual dishes; I’m just not entirely convinced I need them all on one menu. With so many ideas swirling around like bats at dusk, I think Penelope’s could benefit from a bit of editing in pursuit of a clearer voice.

Dessert is inspired by Nguyen’s childhood snack of peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. Fashioned by Setiyoko into a peanut butter parfait ($20) spiked with Davidson plum jam and sandwiched in crisp pressed filo pastry, it’s a nostalgic meet-cute.

Peanut butter parfait, spiked with Davidson plum jam and sandwiched in filo pastry.
Peanut butter parfait, spiked with Davidson plum jam and sandwiched in filo pastry.Wolter Peeters

As Nguyen says, “The roots of these dishes began in other cultures, but if they have been designed for a local palate and cooked with local ingredients by people who grew up here, shouldn’t we just consider this Sydney food?”

Yes, absolutely. As the sunlight fades and the framed harbour darkens, the view is undeniably Sydney – and so is this brave and ambitious, almost political, statement, about what the city’s food is, and can be.

The low-down

Vibe: A new and different outlook on city dining

Go-to dish: Hummus, soft-boiled eggs and green shallot oil, $25

Drinks: Yulli’s beers, bespoke cocktails, and New and Old World wines with a smart 27 by the glass

Cost: About $140 for two, plus drinks

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Terry DurackTerry Durack is the chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and Good Food.

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