For the longest time, I believed that you could enter a) a tree b) a closet (re: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe) and c) a hole in the ground and be transported to another world that was otherwise unknown to the rest of the adult world. A part of me still does. So when I'm meeting Sandra and Michelle for lunch at The Rabbit Hole housed in a basement on busy Elizabeth Street I'm scratching my head wondering whether I have to look for a sign for platform 9 and three quarters and then disappear into a hidden fold.
It turns out I need none of my spidey senses and number 82 Elizabeth Street is well sign posted. In the former Bar Europa space and open for two months already, the specialty is cocktails. However, Executive Chef Tomoyuki Usui (formerly of L'astrance) also does a neat lunch and dinner menu which has been designed to be reasonably priced (no dinner mains over $30) while the lunches have some more office friendly staples added. It was given the name of The Rabbit Hole because they wanted to embrace and be proud of the fact that it was in a basement. Other names like London Subway and The Catacombs were other contenders but The Rabbit Hole was decided upon as they wanted people to feel as though they were walking into a Wonderland.
Doug Laming is the tattooed presence in the themed bar. "I used my travelling money when I was younger on tattoos" he says and you can see the bottom half of his tattoo sleeves below his three quarter length jacket. Patrons walk down the meandering staircase and the dining room is to the left and the main bar area is on the right. All of the cocktails on the menu are originals designed by him and there are intriguing ones with spherification techniques and martinis with a brush of squid ink at the bottom (more on that later). There are only a dozen Cointreau Caviar Spherification Machines in the world, two of them exist in Australia and one of them is at The Rabbit Hole.
I'm the first to arrive so I ask what I should order. Being told that cocktails are de rigeur Doug goes through the cocktail list. He tells me that the rhums (or rum) based cocktails are the ones that are the most time consuming.
Once everyone arrived, we started with what could have been an entree in its appearance. The jellied G&T shots were wobbly rough cut cubes of Hendricks' gin served on a slice of cucumber with a sugar rose petal on top as well as a fizzy burst of sherbertty powder on top. Popping one into your mouth and eating it is a textural sensation and gives you the taste of a G&T but in a textured jelly form.
Now we needed a little instruction here as this isn't your usual margarita. The glass is only there for decoration and to consume this margarita, you lift up the salt rimmed lime and eat the pink finger lime and the two types of the caviar pearls. One contains a Souza Gold tequila and sugar syrup and the other contains Cointreau. You eat these and lick the salted lime and viola, it's a margarita unlike any other kind that you may have had.
I knew exactly what it is like for my friends who just want to eat the food while I pfaff about photographing it. All I wanted to do was sink a fork into a crunchy, golden chip and eat it. Other tables were smart and ordered a side serve of these fluffy, thrice cooked chips and the reason is because they are so damn good you'll just have to convince yourself that eating a meal underground negates the calories consumed (much like eating cocktail party food standing up doesn't count). The burger comes on a soft sweet brioche bun with a tender wagyu patty, brie cheese, tomato slices, baby cos leaf and is a fantastic specimen indeed. It's times like this when I wish I could have had it all.
This is a dish that seems more for the lunch time crowd and whilst it is nice, and all of the bread is made in house with a good amount of lamb and dijon mustard, I really did prefer the unctuous softness of the burger above more. The salad has tiny little specks of beetroot couscous which has a light flavour of beetroot and the texture of couscous.
I think the wagyu tartare was a favourite at our table. The tartare had fantastic flavours, yet was slightly different from the usual Tabasco, onion and caper tartares. This had a soft boiled egg on top from which ran a golden river of yolk as well as chives and garlic crisp crumbs. The little wafers were actually a truffle meringue which had a lovely balance of savoury and sweet to it. It's a surprise to see that this is less expensive than the lamb baguette too.
This really reminded me of fried rice rather than a risotto (although granted, they are related dishes). I must admit that the mango popcorn and pork scratchings were slightly lost on me, not in concept but rather I couldn't really taste or find them. It's really only going through photos later that I see the tiny orange pieces of popcorn.
Savouries completed, all three of us are in a jolly Christmas mood so we decide to go for the Texture Taster. It's actually three different types of textures. I start with the tallest which they recommend that we start with because it will deflate over time. It's a fabulous mini aerated caprioska which is like a sweet coconut and lemongrass marshmallow with vodka. The middle is a lava lamp with Cointreau caviar balls which eventually float to the top (and some of the plate for good measure). This was quite strong and too strong for a lightweight drinker like me. The last was a fabulous little square of alcoholic lemon jelly.
Onto desserts! This dessert with a thin layer of crispy thin brik pastry topped with herbs and pistachio nibs and mint leaves was divine. Smashing through this paper thin layer, you're rewarded with a beautifully light strawberry mousse with stewed strawberry pieces and biscuit.
The chocolate fondant was good and very moreish, especially with Michelle who "had a moment" with it. It had a modest amount of molten centre and is served with a white chocolate ice cream and passion fruit meringue, similar to the truffle meringue. This one however is quite light in passion fruit.
A slightly topsy turvey dessert, there are melon balls, crisp, salty pancetta, a cardamom rich cognac ice cream and little pieces of botrytis (dessert wine) gelee. It was unusual although good and apart from the ice cream, could have sat in the entree or dessert camp.
Now I'll admit, I'm not really your gal if you want to try knock me out, heavy cocktails. Give me a girly sip any day. The breakfast bouquet is just my type and it has Larios gin and Joseph Cartron double creme de cassis shaken with house made rose and strawberry jam, orange blossom water and fresh lemon. It's sweet but reminds me mostly of sweet, tangy lemon gelato.
The idea for this cocktail references the gigantic mythological sea beast the Kraken (like a giant squid) and this uses Kraken rum. The bottom of the martini glass is painted with squid ink and it is filled with a mixture of Kraken rum, Licor 43, Fee Brother walnut bitters, lime and vanilla syrup. It's absolutely intriguing and quite the opposite of the Breakfast Bouquet but just as drinkable.
The Babycino is one last drop from Doug and is made up of three layers. Because there isn't a coffee machine on the premises, he wanted to make a liqueur out of coffee that would satisfy coffee loving customers. This one has a base of Mozart Clear which has been vacuum sealed in a water bath with coffee and heated at 65C. To this they add white creme de cacao and on top is walnut bitters and vanilla syrup with a maple syrup and amaretto foam. It's a really potent little shot and knocks me a little. The flavours come all at once and they're all strong aromatics so this is not one for the shy.
By now, I'm usually flushed and hot from drinking too much alcohol but I'm perfectly fine which is a pleasant surprise. A result of a busy year and a fun catch up, all we want to do is curl up in a corner and have a sun bathed nap. "Most people stumble up the stairs" they say, in a twist on Alice in Wonderland.
So tell me Dear Reader, what do you usually drink? Stronger drinks or lighter ones? And do you like creative cocktails or classic ones?
The Rabbit Hole
Basement level, 82 Elizabeth Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 02 8084 2505
Open Monday to Friday 12-3pm, 6-9pm, Saturday 6-9pm