FOOD and fare made simple is no mean feat. Indeed, to achieve simplicity, in and of itself, is not as simple as it seems. Like the tip of an iceberg, what seems simple, clean and calm, on the surface always belies some secluded mosaic of intense energy and deliberate intricacy behind the scenes; a complexity that is seldom seen, yet absolutely critical to the simplicity showcased on the surface. Such is the way of things at Coal River & Co.
On Darby Street, Coal River & Co. nail simplicity with a menu that, at first, appears to be inspired by authentic Italian cooking, but look a little closer, and see the Mediterranean twists that lie below.
Inside is intimate. A large black wall with a chalk drawn CR&C logo absorbs the light coming from the kitchen opposite. In between, diners sit at set black tables on black metal and timber chairs, in groups of two, three and four. Larger crowds can be accommodated at tables along the black wall, or, outside on high, timber long benches and stools (with heaters, if it's cool). If these spots are taken, look to the white tiled bar that overlooks the kitchen where you might find the best seat in the house, right in front of the chefs.
Underneath, the chefs are prepping pasta, simmering sauces, and searing, frying and grilling various combinations of breads, herbs, vegetables and proteins for tonight's meal.
My dining associate and I sit at one of the black tables set with white napkins, knives and forks, right beside a bookshelf filled with wine, and the occasional cookbook. We're offered sparkling or tap water and then handed the menu. The capitalised list has food on one side and drinks on the other.
For a while, I eyed off the crumbed buffalo mozzarella with prosciutto, chilli jam and basil, until we struck a deal to start, instead, with a share a plate of fried squid with basil aioli, chilli and garlic. Then, a main each of spanner crab and salmon cannelloni, and pappardelle with house made meatballs. Hopefully, there would be enough room for dessert.
The fried squid arrives as a pile of battered golden rings, flecked with chilli and garlic, and arugula leaves drizzled with a basil green aioli sauce served on a swirling black plate. The squid is warm and crispy and firm, hot in places, thanks to the random flakes of chilli, but not overpoweringly so. The flavours are simple, yet refreshing and even more so after a squirt of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Coal River & Co. has a concise collection of wine that include a few (certified) organic choices, which are reasonably priced and many available by the glass. The weeknight diners next to us wash their meals down with a bottle of Lord Nelson beer and a glass of soft drink, while we opt for a bottle of '15 Paxton Tempranillo, grown in the McLaren Vale. It squares up beautifully to my plate of pappardelle and meatballs, while still being light enough to not overpower my associate’s salmon cannelloni.
A blue ringed bowl holds a heap of beefy meatballs swimming in a bright red tomato sauce, alongside wide ribbons of peppered papardelle. Grated Parmesan looks like a melted spider's web laced over the top. Soft, silky pasta ribbons hold the rich herbaceous sauce and wrap easily around one of the chunky meatballs; a fork-full will leave behind traces of red sauce around your mouth if you attempt to push too much in at once, but it is delicious fun. Like a love-sick Scottish terrier and an American cocker-spaniel we swap fork-fulls of each other's dishes as a way to decide who chose the best meal.
My dining associate's spanner crab and salmon cannelloni with chervil velouté sauce wins most understated meal of the evening. Fresh, crispy greens snap clean next to wonderfully soft spanner crap, the lightness of which cuts like a sharpened blade through the fleshy richness of the pink salmon, cooked to perfection. All of it soaks in a delicate parsley and white wine broth that sparks with sweet-bitterness and acidity care of some fennel shards, asparagus spears and watercress leaves.
There's not enough room for dessert, but the mind is a powerful thing. Throwing dietary caution to the wind, we order the tiramisu. A generous slice arrives covered in freshly ground coffee and dusted with powdered chocolate. It's soft and sweet, creamy, bitter (like coffee) and, best of all, boozy.
Between the quality of the ingredients and the delicious way with which they're prepared, cooked and served, Coal River & Co. make simple food and fare look easy.
- What: Coal River & Co.
- Where: 120 Darby St, Cooks Hill; 02 4929 4265; coalriverandco.com
- Owners: Malin Jansson and Nathan Willis
- Head chef: Nicholas Payne
- Drinks: Wine, beer, cider, soft drink, tea & coffee
- Hours: Dinner: Wed-Sun, from 6pm (open Tuesdays from next week), lunch, Fri-Sun, from 12-2.30pm
- Vegetarian: Yes
- Bottom Line: $80 for two, plus drinks
- Wheelchair Access: Yes
- Do Try: Tiramisu