I was getting a little tired of all the salt-laden antipasto around town: all sorts of olives, prosciutto, pickled vegetables, the ubiquitous bottled artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, sardines and such. Too much salt; too much deadening of the palate, but worse, not enough hard work from the kitchen. Then I went to Sydney and tried the antipasto at Taylor’s.

This is the way antipasto should be. Something rather special, a palate tickler before the main event, not just a trendy name for cold meat
and salad. Forget that. Antipasto might be an easy number at home, but when you’re in a restaurant, it sure as hell should not be easy. I have an old and trusted routine in restaurants: never order a pate or terrine, because all the work is done earlier in the day, or often the day before. A great restaurant is one which responds to the pressure of the moment.

Taylor’s is a restaurant pretty much on its own in this country. A pair of dinky-di Australians, Ann Taylor and Ian McCulloch, each untrained in the ways of a professional kitchen, but with a love of food, travelled to Europe, fell in love with the food of Italy, tasting dishes they had never seen in this country. Plenty of us have done that. The secret is to turn it into something more than fancy home cooking.

The pair recognised there was a gaping hole in the market back home, and went for it. Fortunately they had the nous to turn a vision into a classy restaurant. And Taylor’s is on the eve of its tenth anniversary, with Taylor and McCulloch still calling the shots. And something else hasn’t changed.

The restaurant is an expensive renovation of a gorgeous early Australian sandstone building (1840s) in a bits-and-pieces part of Sydney’s Surry Hills. Out back is a cracker- jack extension: outdoors they call it, but it’s actually a glass house, allowing visual access to the garden and the handmade bricks of the outhouse, without the wind and rain and desperate heat and cold. There are heaters for the winter, and, please allow me to stray from the immediate point, the antipasto comes from the kitchen, and it’s as good as you can get.

Consider some of what is offered — all at room temperature, note:

  • Salad of baked butternut pumpkin with avocado, a few drops of olive oil hanging about; brilliant.
  • Field mushrooms sauteed with lemon and mint, with a rich thick tomato sauce just holding the mushies; a ripper.
  • Steamed asparagus with tomato vinaigrette — as called, with the tomato chopped finely, mixed with the finest of chopped onions; a bottler.
  • Involtine di melanzane, which translates to grilled eggplant and Ricotta roll — a fine slice of eggplant wrapped around Ricotta; a bewdy.
  • Baked spinach and rice frittata — a slice of a large quiche-like pie.

The display was just lovely, and the mix of flavours and portions superb. There was air on the plate, and there was a need for more when it was over. This was true antipasto.

This is not, you must realise, a review of a restaurant. It’s an indication of the style all restaurants should look to: simple food, given a touch of class in the hands of a pro. So what’s it doing in a cook book? Simply this. Read again the list of items in the antipasto above. Is there any one of them that you could not do? Is there any one of them about which you would not say: ‘Gee that sounds easy.’ Get the drift? Take this as your dictum: for each dish, seek only the freshest ingredients, put some thought into its best face, and put it to plate with care, flair, and attention to detail. Love, I suppose. That’s the best food, at home, or in a restaurant.

Ann Taylor was a bit taken aback with the praise I was offering for such a simple display. But I think deep down she understood what I was on about. Her restaurant is all about careful planning and thinking and caring: ‘We do plan things quite carefully,’ she said. ‘When we are deciding on antipasto, we do think about the shape, the keeping quality, the combination of food and the colour. Some of the dishes we think would be terrific just don’t look too good on the plate.’

I didn’t ask her for any recipes. As I said: anybody can make up the list above. Just do it carefully. Here’s a few more to try, any way you like:

  • Broad beans, braised, in their skins, in chicken stock with cabbage.
  • Goat’s cheese, and roasted peeled garlic roughly mixed together with some virgin olive oil and wiped on crusty bread.
  • Warm broccoli, just on the edge of soft, with virgin olive oil, steamed spinach and Parmesan.
  • Warm mussels with finely chopped olives and herbs in a vinaigrette flavoured with lime juice.
  • Just-boiled eggs with onions slow-cooked in a little curry powder.
  • And if you don’t want to be flash, a pot filled with mussels and clams, and served with a large white napkin for the neck, just as the sun sets.
  • And for those of you who really can’t be bothered, hot sugar peas, straight from the boiling water, on thickly buttered bread, eaten in a hot bath.

WINE: ‘Not sherry again,’ I hear you cry. The fact is, it is the perfect aperitif. Good, complex fino sherry is one of God’s gifts, and in this country is so cheap. Try Seppelt D.P. 117 for a treat or Mildara George for everyday drinking. Okay, methode champenoise is another go.