For a Sydneysider, actor Marta Dusseldorp names her restaurant of choice very quickly. She even knows the menu at St Kilda's legendary Cicciolina almost by heart. "I know Cicciolina very well," she says, eyeing the specials. "Obviously I don't know the specials but certainly the menu I've been through a few times."
Dusseldorp lived in Melbourne when she was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts, and worked as a waitress nearby.
"The owner of the place I worked was friends with Barbara, the owner here, and we'd come here to drink after work."
More recently, Dusseldorp was in Melbourne last year for several weeks filming the two Jack Irish telemovies based on Peter Temple's detective novels, in which she starred with Guy Pearce.
"I pretty much came here every night for dinner. I'd have my corner seat and my script. Seriously, whenever I come to Melbourne, this is the first place I come. And I mean that."
We share the entree of blue swimmer crab souffle on Dusseldorp's recommendation ("Trust me," she says; she's right). I order the spaghettini vongole (pippies in olive oil, chilli, garlic, lemon juice and parsley) for a main and she orders the duck-leg confit, roasted duck breast with potato fondant, whipped feta and red cabbage and walnut salad.
Dusseldorp is a Helpmann Award-winning stage actor, but has also worked across film and television. Her "break" came in Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road, and since then she's appeared in the films Praise and Burning Man, in dozens of guest TV roles and as the star of the Blackjack telemovies and Hell Has Harbour Views. She's regarded as one of our best stage actors, one of just 12 invited to join the Sydney Theatre Company's ensemble The Actors Company.
In the past couple of years, though, the 40-year-old has dominated the small screen. She's starring in the high-rating Channel Seven drama A Place to Call Home, has just wrapped the second series of Crownies spinoff Janet King, and is filming the next Jack Irish telemovie.
It's been a busy few years.
"But as [her A Place to Call Home co-star] Frankie J. Holden says, 'One year on TV can mean three years off!' "
Her role as Sarah Adams, the enigmatic nurse in the lavish period drama, is, she says, an amazing experience.
"I've played a lot of ballsy, strong, forward-footed women but I found Sarah to come from a very different place to that," Dusseldorp says. "She's ballsy but it's not her nature; she only does it when she has to, and I like that. There's a duality to her, there's a gentleness and a nurturer inside her, which is actually the place she'd rather be. I really enjoyed exploring that."
The secretive, intriguing character involved lots of research, a part of the job Dusseldorp relishes.
"I had her with me for about two or three months before we started pre-production, which is a long time. I knew fairly early on what I needed to look to . . . I just read and watched and soaked and marinated . . . a lot of it has to come out quickly because we shoot fast, and yet a lot of it is so deep. I took that responsibility very seriously because it was all based on that," she says. "Sarah converted to Judaism as well, so I interviewed someone who converted and talked about why and how, and how it felt – it's been wonderful to explore the Jewish religion. This was a very inside-out job; sometimes you can stick the cossie on and slowly things come to life, but this was the opposite for me. Mind you, putting on those clothes and the hat and gloves and stepping onto those sets! It looks incredible and everyone has incredible pride in the production."
Our main meals arrive and talk turns to food, something Dusseldorp enjoys. "We don't eat out so much with two kids," she says. She has two daughters, Grace, 6, and Maggie, 3, with husband, fellow actor and director Ben Winspear, who she met 10 years ago at the Sydney Theatre Company.
"But I cook a lot. I have a lot of cookbooks and I love delving into them. I think I'm a good cook, but only out of a cookbook. I'm envious of people who can just throw it together. I'm a bit anal, especially with baking. I've got electric scales and I recently bought a KitchenAid – it's so good," Dusseldorp says. "If you love baking, the alchemy is amazing. When you see the eggs and butter together, or you do a meringue – all the effort is gone and there it is, rising up in front of you! I'm a big cake baker but I also love slow cooking . . . and I do know now about roasts."
She concedes that when she's busy she "heats things up a lot".
"But when we're both working, my husband and I have managed to see-saw it, which has been great."
One of the joys of A Place to Call Home, she says, was filming so much in the countryside (around Camden and southern NSW), which made the hectic schedule seem less daunting.
"It was so nice! Some days I'd be on horse, or walking through the bush, sitting in a field, having a picnic by a river ... eating cucumber sandwiches!"
Being in the country, Dusseldorp says, helps with the pace of the series, which feels evocative of the kind of melodramas of the 1950s, when A Place to Call Home is set.
"And when we were shooting in the Rocks we had a horse and cart going by, clip clop . . . a girl skipping – the slowness of it all. I love it!" she says.
"You can't call someone on your mobile and then the next shot you're there. There's long, slow shots of people walking up driveways, or my character on a long bike ride. It's such great drama that way."
There have been the inevitable comparisons to Britain's hit period drama Downton Abbey. Dusseldorp understands, but sees the program as uniquely Australian.
"It was a slower time. But we're showing off Australia, which is great. That's the difference between watching Downton and A Place to Call Home – this is our place, this is where our stories are from - the smells, the sounds, the birds ..."
In 2013, time matters, and Dusseldorp is on a tight schedule, heading straight from lunch to a read-through of Jack Irish.
For someone so busy, and straddling two cities, she is remarkably calm – except when she realises we won't have time for Cicciolina's renowned chocolate souffle, which takes 20 minutes to prepare.
"Damn," she says. "Let's quickly get the quince crumble to share."
A Place to Call Home is on Seven on Sundays at 8.30pm.