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Ex-Bella Brutta pizza maker joins the Surry Hills pub, but

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Callan Boys

13.5/20

Italian$

There’s something about standing next to Tex Perkins at The Dolphin that doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t the modern-day Man in Black, the original Beast of Bourbon, be holding court in one of those dank, all-night boozers near Central Station instead? What’s he doing chatting to bar staff in a swanky white-on-cream pub with Keith Haring-style murals, triple-digit champagnes and a synth-pop soundtrack? The place looks part modern-art installation, part florist.

Tex, it turns out, is just keen for a bit of dinner. Perhaps he’s also a mad pizza fan and, like me, had received word that former head pizzaiolo of Newtown’s excellent Bella Brutta, Sasha Smiljanic, recently joined The Dolphin’s kitchen. Great wood-fired things are expected. However, we’re both informed that it’s going to be an hour-long wait for food (or “maybe an hour and a half”), which Tex declares a bit much – and promptly hightails it out the door.

It’s a Wednesday night and the high-ceilinged dining room is only a third full. An hour-long wait does seem a bit much. I’m told it’s because the place was heaving earlier, and the kitchen is still playing catch-up. In any case, I order a pizza and cheeseburger at the bar and both dishes land on the table within 15 minutes. Tex, come back, you could’ve stayed!

Pepperoni pizza with buffalo mozzarella.
Pepperoni pizza with buffalo mozzarella.Jennifer Soo

I’m not going to whinge about food arriving quicker than expected, but the poor line of communication does suggest The Dolphin isn’t the slick enterprise it once was. When the spacious Crown Street pub was relaunched seven years ago under the guidance of Icebergs restaurateur Maurice Terzini, it was one of the hottest – and most reliable – places to drink natural wine and eat spaghetti in Sydney.

Around 2020, however, Terzini parted ways with the hotel’s operators (the same group that runs two-hatted Shell House in the CBD) and the pub lost a fair chunk of its edge and appeal.

I dearly miss the wine room sessions, when a different high-profile chef would cook a special-guest snack menu each week. You can still sit in the wine room, but the bar is rarely staffed. It feels like Leyland Brothers World after Mike and Mal jumped ship.

But what’s the food like these days? After a few visits, I can say most of the Italo-Oz menu is pretty darn good. I use “most” because the cheeseburger ($24) could have been used to plug a leaking dyke. The meat is burnt to a gritty black and it’s incredible to think that a chef must have seen the patty come off the grill, shrugged and thought, “That’ll do.”

Pork cotoletta with jellybean-green caper and rocket sauce.
Pork cotoletta with jellybean-green caper and rocket sauce.Jennifer Soo

An overcooked and oily pork cotoletta schnitzel ($28) isn’t much better, barely saved by a neon-green rocket sauce the colour of a lime jellybean.

However, the heat of a double pepperoni pizza ($26) is tempered by creamy mozzarella and the base has just the right amount of flop. A roast potato variant ($26) is deliciously topped with hunks of fluffy spud, smoked scamorza cheese and luscious pancetta. Only the “Mare e Monti” with king prawns, fermented chilli and XO sauce ($28) is a disappointment, loaded with so much umami the ingredients trip over each other and the flavours lose clarity.

There might be truffle in the carbonara, but The Dolphin is still very much a pub.

The best dish might be a leftover from Terzini’s tenure: calamari St Andrea ($20), a straight-up treatment of addictively seasoned fried squid that’s all spindly legs and chubby tubes. A liberal squeeze of lemon and you’re off and racing.

Go-to dish: Calamari St Andrea.
Go-to dish: Calamari St Andrea.Jennifer Soo

A 300-gram wagyu rump ($45), meanwhile, is properly charred and intensely tasty, spooned with a rich, sweet mess of slow-cooked cipollini onions and jus.

Chilli and pork sausage maccheroni is woozy with butter, and fine value at $25 a bowl.

A slightly grippy Le Pezze 2021 Pinot Grigio, imported from Veneto, is agreeably priced at $13 a glass, too. I don’t know who’s coming here and dropping $850 on a magnum of Frank Cornelissen 2018 “BB” Nerello Mascalese, but the option’s there. So is the opportunity to smoke on the upstairs terrace or blow a pay cheque in the sad little pokie room.

There might be truffle in the carbonara ($27) but The Dolphin is still very much a pub. Is it a good pub, though? It’s certainly a loud one, especially if it’s Saturday night and there’s a Swans game on the telly. On a sunny afternoon, the street-side tables are a cracking spot to drink a negroni ($22) and eat terrific polenta chips ($12). The beer is cold and the fried squid is hot.

So, yes, by those vital measures, it is still a good pub. With more consistency, it could even be a great one.

The low-down

Vibe: Big, loud, negroni-fuelled house party

Go-to dish: Calamari St Andrea ($20)

Drinks: Approachable list of Australian and Italian wines, plus a few big-ticket natural drops

Cost: About $80 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

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Callan BoysCallan Boys is editor of SMH Good Food Guide, restaurant critic for Good Weekend and Good Food writer.

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