IF I told you chef Daniel Mulligan was manning the pans of a restaurant in a hotel you could be forgiven for thinking Guinness pie might appear on an Irish-inspired gastro-pub menu. Of course, this is Australia. The ancestry and experiences of its inhabitants is as rich and complex as the tapestry of our culinary landscape. In truth, a surname has next to nothing to do with one’s understanding and capabilities of a cuisine. You see, the new restaurant at The Welcome Hotel, Ajo, is more caponata than colcannon, and a damn fine representation of cucina Italiana it is. After eight years as head chef at Sardinian restaurant Pilu at Freshwater, Aussie chef Daniel Mulligan made tracks for The Welcome Hotel, and not surprisingly his food leans heavily, though not exclusively, to Sardinia. After a year of settling in they’ve finally named the restaurant — Ajo — (meaning “let’s go” in the Sardinian dialect) and had a major refurb to deliver a sophisticated space dominated by a grey leather banquette, brown tables and classic café chairs. There’s even a smart alfresco dining area away from the beer garden as well.t’s evidence that we’ve moved on from the monolithic pub mindset and prefer comfortable surrounds, even if we’re still “dropping down the local for a few”. Ever watchful waitstaff strike a fine balance between professionalism and casual cool with a mindseye to deliver the occasional upsell. Meanwhile the wine list is as well structured and practical as any stand-alone establishment, with a championing of NSW drops, craft beers and some of the funky natural wines, too. But the thing is Mulligan’s food is the real deal. It is as visually appealing and clever as it is pleasing to eat. Bright golden pickled beets bring light and calmness to rich, buttery swordfish belly coated in a shaved bottarga crumb. It’s lush. Then edible flowers colour a picture-perfect puddle of fregola and Queensland spanner crab, accentuated by the multi-sensory smarts of marjoram.Succulent de-boned spatchcock is smoked for two hours, rolled in seed and Dijon mustard and seared. It arrives in a cast iron pan with pickled traviso, apple mustard puree and a lick-the-bowl-clean chicken jus. Although there’s nourishing nuttiness from a Palmers Island mulloway that is well supported by a comforting cauliflower puree the hook of sea urchin roe butter feels like a false promise. It’s barely present. Ajo could hold its own as a stand-alone establishment. Once inside, you’d never even know you were in a pub. Especially when desserts arrive. I mean, who has dessert in a pub? Not I, but Mulligan’s cleverly constructed offering is a delight. Strawberries, pistachios and miniature meringues make for a magnificent Eton mess. Ajo — “let’s go”. You should.
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