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Jet Bar Caffe

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At the risk of sounding like some sort of creepy stalker, I must admit I have been following Danny Russo for some time.

To make it sound a bit better, this is Chef Danny Russo we're talking about, and I'm purely a culinary stalker, having tracked him through several Sydney kitchens from Lo Studio where he set many benchmarks, to The Beresford Hotel where he added more, and now to his latest gig in the CBD at the newly renovated and reopened Jet Bar Caffe.

This café has had a few personas too, and several name changes. When I ate there recently I met Antoinette Mowad who has been co-owner with husband Tony and front of house since the first 'Little Jet' opened in 1997. Her love for what Tony calls their 'little baby' is evident and she adds life to the floor, welcoming diners, missing nothing, and charmingly smoothing the entire operation.

 

Danny Russo has come on board in the capacity of consultant chef to fellow Italian, head chef Immanuel Arena, who is Calabrian-born and an ideal match for Russo who hails from the adjoining region of Basilicata.

The food, we discover when dining there, takes on the best of both worlds. The menu reads like we're in Italy, headed Mangia e Bevi (eat and drink) beginning with some of the 'stuzzichini' I remember from Russo's Beresford menu. These tiny delights come even before the antipasti, calibrating our palates for the meal ahead.

 

 

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However, several courses in, our grilled barramundi is the high point. Silky and flavourful, my notes say "best ever barramundi!". And then we learn it is from New Zealand, pushing the cross-national thing even further. But then, that is the secret (if you could call it that) - choose the best, freshest produce and serve it simply. Arena's and Russo's nonnas would have been doing that for decades, and now it's so ingrained in them, they can operate no other way.

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Let's recap, just in case you have missed Jet in your dining travels. It sits at the southern end of the QVB, the gracious queen of CBD architecture, facing out past Queen Vic's statue towards Town Hall. Even the situation seems Italian with outdoor dining, a wide piazza-like forecourt and grand architecture. Russo says it reminds him of dining in Italy. "The building itself reminds me of Il Duomo in Milan," he says.

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Antoinette says she sees the customers come for pastries and good coffee from opening time at 7.30am, through to the groups of ladies who lunch (and of course go on to shop afterwards) then later, the after-work coffees and drinks, pre- and post-theatre light meals, morphing into dinners. Jet's a bar, it's a café, it's a meeting place, it's a restaurant. How very Italian. Underlining this, just in case we were in any doubt, the sift and tasteful background music as we dine features a tenor singing opera.

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The interior of Jet has had a makeover too - now there's a wine bar, takeaway espresso bar, larger upper level kitchen, and plans for a gelato bar. The décor features black faux marble tables, leather banquettes, aged brass ceilings, low hanging lights, black terrazzo, channelling Milano.

With the stage setting in place, the Arena-Russo menu was then free to do what it does best - offer well-priced mains, "basically Australian Italian without the cultural cringe" as Russo calls it, and all the delicious extras. All pastas are made in-house as are many of the pastries and breads and the cultural heritage of both chefs is apparent. A favourite dessert is Arena's nonna's doughnuts in red wine!

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So maybe my stalking days are over at last. Perhaps Russo has found his ideal space here. It would surely be a win-win for everyone.

- Sally Hammond

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Jet Bar Caffe, Ground Floor, Queen Victoria Building, cnr Druitt & York Streets, Sydney, 02 9283 5004. Open Mon-Sat 7.30am-11pm, Sun 9am-11pm.

 

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