Castlecrag isn’t a suburb known for its food.
Tucked in-between Northbridge, Willoughby and Castle Cove on Sydney’s lower north shore, it’s a genteel peninsula you need to go out of your way to visit.
The 114-seat Apera, which recently opened in the suburb’s Quadrangle Shopping Village is reason to head there.
Co-owner and restaurant manager Jenny Shaw (of Hotel Palisade, The Kitchen Nook and Suzie Q Coffee & Records) chose Castlecrag, which was designed Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect best know for designing Canberra, because it “has a lovely village feel and a real sense of community.”
“It was very apparent to us that the only thing really missing was a good place to go to for a casual drink and a bite to eat.”
One half of the space has long, colorful banquette-style seating for diners in for the long haul, and on the other side, high tables and chairs for the crowd just looking for a casual drink and maybe some snacks from the bar menu.
Diners can see straight into the kitchen, and flashes of flames every now and then add to the anticipation, but any noise coming from the kitchen is barely heard.
The wood panel walls create a farm-like rustic vibe, alongside the almost minimalistic bar section.
Waiter Harrison Doughman looks after the wine here and is incredibly passionate and animated, and if you ask nicely, might take you on his personal wine tour, matching wines perfectly with each course.
If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, Apera has interesting twists on classics such as the beet negroni with snap pea gin, Adelaide Hills bitter orange and woodfire beetroot vermouth.
It’s sweet, earthy and a more than a little bitter.
They do a gimlet with West Winds “The sabre” gin and lime husk cordial, which is tangy, a little powdery like sherbet, and very strong.
Generous dish portions are designed to share.
Shaw describes her fare as “proper food with no airs or graces”.
“It’s like a good gastro pub but with our own twist and up a notch,” she says.
Her favourite dish on the menu is the New South Wales clams with salty samphire and njuda oil.
“It’s spicy and savoury, full of umami,” she says.
The tiny, salty clams explode in the mouth but are over all too soon after one gulp. Don’t be surprised if you get the urge to suck the sauce off the shells.
Shaw recommends ordering some Berkelo’s Khorosan Rye bread and using it to mop up the sauce.
Blood sausage isn’t on many dinner menus in Sydney, but Apera’s Spanish-style morcilla comes with romesco and burnt shallots, and is incredibly rich and perfect for a winter’s night feast.
The heirloom tomatoes, with hand-tied, creamy burrata and oregano offer a welcome, fresh reprieve from the heavier entrees.
The rotisserie Bangalow farm porchetta is everything you’ve ever wanted in a pork roast, with gloriously crunchy crackling, gooey, chewy fat that sticks to your teeth, and fantastically soft meat that just melts as soon as it hits your tongue.
Likewise with the Cowra lamb shoulder with Warrigal greens and chimichurri good enough to rival Matt Moran’s family lamb from restaurant Chiswick.
Sides of a whole baked cauliflower with Birch’s Bay manchego, sage and Riverina hazelnuts is a great, healthy comfort food dish for winter, as is the wood-fired broccolini, capers and burnt butter.
The fries with aioli are a crowd favourite.
Dessert also gets an Australiana touch, with a mandarin and wattleseed cake (like a lemon and poppyseed cake, but less in-your-face) topped with a quenelle of slightly moussey dark chocolate and crunchy, toffee-ish hazelnut praline.
The smoky, charred, wood-fired pear comes with a fragrant lavender crumble and vanilla bean ice cream.
There’s only one thing Apera needs, and that’s some light glass frosting on the back window that looks directly onto the supermarket out the back, which kind of breaks the atmosphere of an otherwise sophisticated and polished restaurant.
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