|Chef James Watson has upped the ante in the Shire.|
For those who don't know much about the English-born chef, he first earned his culinary chops working under Gordon Ramsay, at Aubergine, and then St John Restaurant in London where it seems he was also prepped in the art of peppering a kitchen with expletives.
The 38-year-old migrated to Australia in 2002 where he quickly gained attention at Balmain's Riverview Hotel. He has since earned a lot of cred for being one of the first of the city's award-winning chefs to look at Sydney's outer suburban strips anew.
After Watson opened the Peacock Trattoria in 2010 in a non-descript smear of shops in Kyle Bay he shifted his gaze to Gymea, with the launch of the Italian Stallion and Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe in August 2014.
The 'cock' as I like to call it, is one of my all-time fave neighbourhood bistros in Sydney and I was beyond happy when I heard the chef's culinary aspirations had crossed Tom Ugly's Bridge. The fact Gymea is just 20 minutes' drive from my home in Cronulla is also a beautiful thing.
|The Italian Stallion has helped give Gymea a leg-up in the culinary stakes.|
The Husband and I were so excited about the arrival of The Italian Stallion Bar and Griglia we galloped there a week after it opened. We both loved how deliciously New York divey and vibey it was and were impressed with our Planet of the Grapes mojitos followed by a few glasses of riesling and the chef's signature duck salad and divine crab linguine. The service from restaurant manager Fabio was also fabulous. So much has been done to rejuve the Stallion since then that it deserves a return visit in the the next few months, when the renovations are complete. (Watch this space.)
|Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe has helped Gymea find its groove.|
Now for the heads-up on Hazelhurst. Thanks to Watson - who was also responsible for the recent reworking of the Seawall Restaurant in Walsh Bay - the gallery cafe has benefitted from more than a few tweaks. The new design is rustic and real and references the garden aspect with a feature wall of vintage tools, communal tables that could double as work horses, tin tubs spilling with flowers and well-placed branches, lemons and pineapples providing many points of sculptural interest.
|Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe now takes advantage of its location, overlooking a sprawling garden.|
|The newly rejuvenated Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe is now a place to linger longer.|
Taking pride of place inside the cafe is a mural by Mulga the Artist that is based on a caricature of the Italian Stallion's Fabio. The character is wearing sunglasses that frame the pass where the chefs peep out onto the floor and it sets the tone of the new cafe, mainlining it with personality. It doesn't matter where you sit, Fabio is there, wearing hot pink frames, glowering at you, challenging you not to be impressed. Watson's notion - to make the gallery cafe a cool place to stay and hang - has paid off. In fact, it's a trademark of his eating houses that you don't want to leave.
|Heading them off at the pass is a mural painted by Mulga The Artist.|
What I really love about the new-look cafe, which was fairly staid in its former life, is that the pensioners in sensible shoes and cardigans feel as welcome as the couples with young kids tumbling about on the lawn next to arty hipsters and locals looking smug that Gymea has lifted its game. It's also fantastic that it's drawing more and more people to the first-rate exhibitions on show in the gallery space next door.
|Shear genius - the cafe has been reworked and is now both rustic and refined.|
The cafe is an all-day dining affair serving breakfast and lunch until 4pm each day and the menu itself taps into the zeitgeist in that it's food we want to eat. Expect proper ballsy cooking with breakfast options such as Persian pumpkin pancakes, haloumi, dukkah, egg, herbs and Syrian chook or the Big Breakfast Bruschetta, with poached eggs, bacon, herbed mushroom and tomato.
|Scones with jam and cream served in pretty terracotta pots.|
There is also an in-between menu with scones with berry jam and double cream served in cute terracota pots and a tempting kids' menu of chicken schnity and chips, quesadilla or fish 'n' chips all served with a nudie popper and seasonal fruit.
|House-baked muffins and friands are the order of the day.|
Although the 'cock's signature crispy duck salad, with nectarine, hazelnuts, witlof, watercress, radicchio and vino cotto makes a cameo on the lunch menu, diners are enticed to branch out with solid options such as Tuscan panzanella salad, heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, crisp bread, baby basil, tomato vinaigrette designed to thrill. As for the reuben sandwich filled with corned beef cooked with golden syrup and malt vinegar, Swiss cheese, pickles, red cabbage and onions? Out. Of. Control.
|The reuben sandwich is reason enough to visit the Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe.|
Hazelhurst Gallery has always been a hot local spot, with major exhibitions, art classes and markets. Now the cafe also deserves attention in its own right, as does James Watson who has made the Shire a better place than when he arrived. Now, head chef Sarah Marsh's ingredient-led menu sits comfortably alongside tidbits 'foraged' from the garden and the mains look like they've riffed with Mulga on how to pull off being a key player.
|Breakfast muesli and fresh fruit and yoghurt in a jar ... what a perfectly poised start to the day.|
"What I've tried to create is an upbeat, funky modern place to go where the breakfast is good, the lunch is good, the service is good and there are lots of add-on activities in the area. Everything is taking shape and really all I did was capture the goodness in the place ... the bones were there, we've just put some flesh on it," says Watson.
|Mulga the Artist has also helped the gallery get its groove on.|
|Tuck into a tropical fruit pavlova which is bolstered by lemon curd and passionfruit sorbet.|
Hazelhurst Gallery Cafe, 782 Kingsway, Gymea, NSW. 2227. For bookings, phone (02) 8536 5755. Open 9am-4pm Mon-Sun.