“We want to introduce people to the idea of Asian pasta,” says co-owner Minh Nguyen. “Judging from the feedback we’re getting, a lot of people don’t even realise it’s a whole category of food in places like Thailand and Japan and Vietnam.”
The couple, who also own three Madame Nhu eateries across the city, travel frequently and take inspiration from the cosmopolitan food scenes in South-East Asian cities. “There’s a lot of Italian expats in Bangkok, for example, so restaurants started experimenting with local flavours like pad kee mao [drunken noodles] spaghetti and pad ka prao [Thai holy basil stir-fry] pasta,” says Minh.
At Bar Pesta, the kitchen takes things one step further and incorporates flavours from different Asian cuisines into the trusty Italian dish. This means you’ll see things such as a fragrant Tom Yum tiger prawn linguine alongside a Japanese-style mushroom wafu pasta. The latter glossy with dashi butter and packed full of oyster and enoki mushrooms.
Nhu (of Madame Nhu fame) is the brain behind the diverse menu. She also runs the kitchen and takes pride in creating the restaurant’s signature dish — the aglio e olio (garlic and oil) Laotian. Here, Nhu ups the smokiness by using the wok to toss the noodles. While the technique is Asian, most of the ingredients (chilli flakes, garlic, olive oil and white wine) are still staunchly Italian. The Laotian influence being the addition of spicy pork sausages.
“That dish is 50 per cent Italian, 50 per cent Asian,” says Minh. Something like the handmade gnocchi, on the other hand, is “90 per cent Italian”. Made with a grassy pesto plus bacon crisps, almond and sundried tomato, it’s carb-based comfort at its peak.
On the Cantonese side, you’ll find a punchy XO seafood penne. A generous medley of sliced squid, New Zealand mussels and tiger prawns are tossed in a “secret” XO sauce. You’ll taste the usual suspects — dried shrimps, dried scallops and a boatload of chilli.
In fact, expect most dishes to be spicy unless otherwise stated. A solid option for non-chilli fans is the miso carbonara on the lunch menu. It’s a flavour-packed spaghetti made rich by caramelised onions and miso dashi. A runny onsen egg accompanies the noodles, giving the al dente strands an extra silky finish.
Plant-based diners will find fun snacks such as the salt and pepper okra and lotus; plus a vegan Caprese of silken tofu, tomato and (Thai and Italian) basil. Best of all is the nod they give to former Xage regulars by popping a handful of old favourites on the new menu. So yes, you can get a curry with your pasta. Or fluffy Hanoi spring rolls to kick off a meal. Because what’s the point of breaking the mould if you can’t have a little fun with it?
Main attraction: Asian-influenced pasta dishes brought to you by the team behind Xage, the Vietnamese homestyle restaurant that once occupied the site.
Must-try: Aglio e olio Laotian is an umami-packed take on the Italian original — think spicy sausages and wok-tossed noodles. For vegetarians, try the rich, eggy miso carbonara.
Insta-worthy dish: The vegan Caprese is a cool trompe l’oeil that replaces classic mozzarella slices with silken tofu.
Drinks: Wine by the glass from $6.50; cocktails $12-$16.
Prices: Lunch $14-$20; dinner $15-$24.
Hours: Mon-Thu 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sun 11.30am-3pm, 5-10pm.
IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
78 Campbell Street, Surry Hills
Melburnians don’t call DOC an institution for nothing. This Surry Hills outpost — Sydney’s first — will have 14 pizza toppings to choose from, all made with their beloved spongey bases. Get the signature Pizza San Daniele or check out weekly specials. Don’t forget the Italian wine list.
35 Richards Lane, Surry Hills
A social enterprise that serves delicious Little Marionette coffee, Wilson is tucked away in a grunge-y garage attached to architecture firm MHNDU. You’ll find salads made by Two Good, a simple grazing plate and $5 tahini toasts — with all profits going to a rotating cast of charities.
238 Crown Street, Darlinghurst
While yakitori haven Chaco Bar has moved to Potts Point, part of its spirit remains in the original Surry Hills site. We’re talking the very thing that powered their Monday nights — ramen. Fans can now order steamy bowls of noodles every day of the week. Just turn up early. And hungry.
NOMAD UP THE ROAD
85 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills
After a fire that damaged the kitchen last year, Nomad found a new (temporary) home and continues serving up inventive food up the street. Chefs have traded their wood-fired oven for a plancha (mental grill), plus you’ll see new dishes such as the potted crab and kingfish croquettes.
THE ARCHITECT’S BOOKSHOP
499 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Lovers of architecture are a special species. So much so that the inner city has given them a dedicated bookstore to nerd out over the finer points of our built environment and swap feelings on “brutalism”. Expect free talks, regular events and plenty of exquisite tomes.
Editor, Daily Life