SPROUT has become something of a beloved Newcastle institution.
First arriving in the bowling clubs of Newcastle (and transforming bowlo menus in the process), the husband and wife team of Tom and Jacqueline Brown opened their flagship restaurant, Sprout Dining, in Honeysuckle in 2010.
What followed was a multitude of venues, including Sprout Canteen at the Newcastle Museum, Coal River and Co on Darby Street and Sprout Catering.
Now they have decided to strip back their empire and focus on what they love best: cooking fresh, seasonal, delicious food.
Moving into the Crown and Anchor at the end of the Hunter Mall is a step in simplification.
Simple pub food is served downstairs, while upstairs focuses more on fine dining, albeit with a relaxed atmosphere - think blonde wooden tables, candles, black padded chairs (that are actually comfortable) and jazz floating from the sound system. The space is open and welcoming and divided into a cocktail lounge and a dining area for around 50 guests. And tonight it is full. Despite no real indication from street level that there is a restaurant upstairs, each table fills up before the clock hits 8pm.
It's clear that diners have been watching and waiting for Sprout's return.
And there's much to celebrate: those melt-in-your-mouth freshly baked bread rolls that I loved at the Honeysuckle venue are still served after the waitstaff take your order - warm, crusty on the outside and super-soft on the inside.
The menu is full of familiar friends: scallops, pasta dishes, well-cooked meats and fresh salads, but there are also those cutlery-gobbling plates. That I haven't missed.
An entree of black pudding with almond cream, bacon, nuts and crisp kale is perfect for winter - the crumbly, meaty, gamey black pudding and bacon are hearty while creamy almonds, crispy kale and currants on top are reminiscent of a savoury fruit mince pudding. Three plump seared scallops come with serrano ham and a citrus salad of fennel, radish and orange, plus a garlic and red pepper sauce. The salad feels slightly overdressed, but the scallops are perfectly wonderful.
I couldn't go past the main of gnocchi - it's become a signature dish - and tonight's version with almonds, roasted pumpkin, spinach and parmesan doesn't disappoint. It's back to its best - the hand-made dumplings are delightful and comforting, and the serving is just huge. An entree-sized option would have been ideal - but I'll know for next time.
The lamb main is presented three ways: roasted (but tender and pink), stewed in a country cassoulet and in crunchy, crumbed croquette form. There are elements that sparkle, such as a fresh pea puree and chunks of hearty vegetables (zucchini, carrot, garlic) but the champion of the dish - that rich flavour of the lamb - is unfortunately slightly underwhelming.
Desserts cover all bases: a rich chocolate pudding with malt ice-cream; meringue with crushed strawberries and strawberry ice-cream; sticky fig, date and almond pudding with salted caramel sauce and a creamed rice with honey muscat poached pears. The extensive wine list is exclusively Australian and being located in a pub, there are some good beers on tap.
With its focus on classic and refined flavours, top produce and solid technique, Sprout in its new home is a welcome return.
What: Sprout Dining at the Crown and Anchor Hotel.
Where: 189 Hunter Street, Newcastle. 4927 1138.
Chef/Owners: Tom and Jacqueline Brown.
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 5pm until late.
Drinks: All Australian wines by glass, half bottle and full. $6.50 to $11 for a glass or $27 to $120 for a bottle.
Vegetarian: Two entrees, one main.
Bottom line: Entrees $16.90, mains $34, desserts $14.
Wheelchair access: No – the restaurant is on the second floor.
Do try: The gnocchi and try to leave room for a dessert.