Strolling towards Australia’s oldest cobbled laneway, the playful tunes of the circular quay buskers have now been drowned out by the live acoustic entertainer delighting revellers at iconic watering hole, the Fortune of War. It’s only a Thursday night, but for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the historical precinct, a 24/7 buzz permeates The Rocks.
An assortment of tourists and CBD nine-to-fivers ensure ‘The Fortune’, The Orient and The Argyle are all lively with atmosphere at dusk on this spring-eve. But we’re not grabbing a pint at any of those heaving night spots, well at least not yet.
First, we have a dinner date booked at one of Sydney’s trendiest eateries. Ideally located, Pony Dining is tucked in snuggly beside The Orient on Argyle Street, a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal and train station.
The heritage brick exterior of the restaurant is understated but sophisticated – a sure indication that the experience advertises itself. The refined style continues inside. There’s a distinct natural element that flows through the restaurant from the Argentinean wood-fire grill, which is the heart of the operation, all the way through to the well-stocked saloon at the rear.
The warmth from the Blue Mountains-sourced lumber radiates throughout the narrow dining area, which offers intimate table-for-two settings that can be re-arranged for larger groups. Pony even has a dining table that stretches ten metres along its outdoor deck – the best seat in the house as the longer days roll in, and the sweet smell of spring wafts in over Sydney Harbour.
My party-for-two is escorted to a window table by a bubbly and attentive Polish waitress, and I can’t help but be drawn to the open kitchen in which the grill is the centrepiece. The counter is clad in pony-hide and the chefs are in full view behind it, busily preparing their freshly updated modern Australian menu. Hanging on the walls around us are woven art features, and vibrant greenery adds a breath of fresh air.
There are couples young and old, corporate-types, and even single-diners enjoying the relaxed ambience at our 6.30pm timeslot. After ordering light seasonal cocktails – ‘Sour Pink Grapefruit’ and ‘Sydney Iced Tea’, I make my way over to the kitchen for a quick chat with Irish head chef Neil Nolan.
“Sure, we have people here for all sorts of occasions,” he says. “There are plenty of first-dates and couples, not to mention a few proposals including one at the table you’re sitting at, so we get to entertain a really good mix.” He has even been sounded out to host the English Super League side Hull FC when they arrive down under to contest the World Club Series in February.
Certainly, Pony’s reputation precedes it. With another location at Brisbane’s Eagle Street Pier, it is well-known by foodies for its top-quality Australian produce and wood-fire cooking technique. In fact, that’s what drew Neil to the restaurant when it first opened in 2006. “I’d worked all over Ireland back home but I’d never cooked on wood-fire, even in Australia when I came down 20 years ago there was no wood-fire, so it was like learning to cook all over again, working with different flavours,” he continues.
“That challenge is what inspired me to start with this restaurant, and working with the produce we have was a game-changer as well. The wood-fire creates flavour you can’t get anywhere else, it just brings the best out of our produce. When you cook steak or vegetables in a pan, you can’t get the finish like you can here… it’s just very natural.”
Neil prepares the full experience for us, from the seared kangaroo with pepperberry dressing and king prawns in sake broth entrees, to his signature dry-aged rib-eye with bone marrow main, and hand-cut chips and seasonal vegetables sides. And while the grain-fed steak is unquestionably the show-stopper, the snapper brought out alongside it clearly wants a shot at the title. It’s fresh, light, sweet and succulent, and pairs perfectly with the Tai Nui Sav Blanc I’ve moved on to.