Reinventing and realigning the direction of a restaurant and style of food is never easy and rarely meets expectations. Owner/Chef Milan Strbac at Sugarcane has achieved not only that, but also an exciting exploration and interpretation of South East Asian cuisine during that transition. The astutely lit and roughly exposed walls, playful murals, silk handbag ceiling, and shared benches highlight the overall mood of the revamp. This draws diners gently into the world of thoughtful Pan Asian fusion. The bustling open kitchen, and passing montage of Surry Hills, adds that street influence to some of dishes on the menu, delivering just the right touch of symbolism.
Diners would nearly be content to sit on a few bowls of exceptionally seasoned cashews ($6), with shallot, chilli and crispy garlic, and some beers. However, an elegantly presented rice cake ($4) with prawn, betel leaf and caramelised sugarcane follows, providing simplicity and balance, while delivering an early positive sign for the dishes ahead. A more traditional and rustic roti ($10), with flavoursome curry sauce, cucumber and chilli, momentarily shifts the focus to a humble and comforting Nyonya dish. This popular style of food brings much joy to the Malaysian people, whether at home or abroad; being a natural choice for this menu style.
If only all salt and pepper squid dishes ($15), were executed as well as this. Light textbook batter with tender squid, yellow bean and soy dressing, is a long overdue redemption for the flawed versions I have experienced elsewhere. The balance of seasoning hits the mark perfectly, making this a dish I would order without hesitation on each visit. The pork and prawn dumplings ($16) are quite thick, but the soy, coriander and ginger dressing helps lighten the mouth feel, with good interior consistency. The Wagyu Rendang ($19) is a perfectly indulgent contrast of complex flavour and sublime texture, being the best I have experienced since Benjamin Cooper’s outstanding version at Chin Chin.
Service suits the relaxed feel of the restaurant, remaining professional throughout; a balance that continues to be elusive for others who have also made the shift to casual dining. Shared tables (not generally a preferred personal option) are successful at Sugarcane largely due to the vibrancy of the floor staff, and the sensibly measured flow of the food from the open kitchen. The wine list hits proportionate price points with the food, and compliments the menu nicely. The philosophy of quality produce, driven through the shared plate experience, with amazingly no dish exceeding $21, will encourage return patronage, hopefully guaranteeing long term sustainability.
Having recently visited the farm, and therefore familiar with the award winning Milly Hill Lamb, further enhanced my appreciation of the Asian twist Chef Milan Strbac brings to the amazing produce. Sticky caramelised chilli jam ribs ($16), falling off the bone, deliver that distinctive core flavour from a totally different perspective, without overcomplicating the impact of this superb produce on the palate. The crispy chicken ($16), with sweet blood plum sauce, will stay on the menu, averting a Surry Hills diner revolt if they ever tried to remove it. The soy and tamarind elements cut nicely across the sweetness, making it an entirely moreish, and a popular option for shared dishes.
Coconut sorbet ($4), from a compressed dessert menu, is a simple yet perfect cleanser to counterpoint the spice and richness of the savoury dishes. Banana roti ($12), with condensed milk ice cream, is a portion size best shared, but nonetheless a lovely way to finish. The realignment of Sugarcane is a welcome and considered approach to Sydney’s casual dining scene, having struggled with the transition compared to Melbourne. They have always maintained this level of dining better, involving a more innovative, authentic and measured approach. Owner/Chef Milan Strbac has adopted an uncomplicated yet versatile menu appealing to a range of tastes, whilst maintaining focus on a specific direction. The vibrant room, food, and price points make Sugarcane a “real keeper”, amidst some more uncertain and unfocussed options elsewhere.
40a Reservoir Street, Surry Hills
Wed to Fri 12pm to 2.30pm, Mon to Sat 6 to 10pm