By the glass at AJO


Ajo! and eat... Ajo is Sardinian for let's go. I was lucky enough to go and spend last Friday lunch in the light and airy dining room of AJO at the Welcome hotel in Rozelle. Ajo has just retained its Chef Hat in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food awards. And for good reason too.

Ajo is a regional Italian styled restaurant that has a focus on Sardinia. Chef Daniel Mulligan's food philosophy is to cook food that is simple and seasonally driven, using only the freshest local ingredients. Daniel fine tuned his skills under the knowing eye of Giovanni Pilu for eight years as head chef of Giovanni's two Chef Hat restaurant Pilu at Freshwater. Well let me tell you this guy has skills, not only does he cook the food but he has handmade the beautiful plates it comes served on.

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To start we had three assagini (little tastes) which was a lovely diversion. One was a dehydrated Jerusalem artichoke skin with a topping of ricotta, Jerusalem artichoke and pecorino, dusted with leek powder. Next swordfish belly cured and smoked in house, which had a delicate smoke to it and then barely chargrilled. The fish was covered with delicious salty flakes of bottarga (dried mullet roe, a Sardinian specialty used in many dishes, namely pasta con bottarga) It was finished off with a zesty mandarin caramel which cut through the fat of the belly. The third assagini was deep fried eggplant which melted in the mouth with agrodolce (sweet and sour) - Agrodolce is made reducing sweet and sour elements together to create a balance. Traditionally vinegar and sugar are used.

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General manager and Sommelier Stephanie Bousquet kindly matched a glass of wine to each of our mains that we had ordered. We chose the Culurgiones, $28 and the Palmers Island Mulloway, $35. I ate culurgiones in Sardinia which traditionally are beautifully folded ravioli with potato, pecorino and mint. I know weird right, potato in pasta? But the combination really works.

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Chef Daniel's take on them were filled with kale, ricotta and pecorino and served with burnt butter with hazelnuts. Stephanie matched the 2012 6MURA Vermentino to this dish as she said the acidity would cut through the butter and the nutty texture of the wine, having spent a year on lees, which would match the toasted hazelnuts of the dish. And it did. We really enjoyed the curlurgiones with its beautifully caramelised leeks. We also appreciated the great skill and time involved in folding the culurgiones in a bustling kitchen. Have a look here how they are made.

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Stephanie chose the 2015 Cantina Della Vernaccia Terresinis to go with the Palmers Island Mulloway, this wine is a blend of 85% vernaccia and 15% vermentino. The Terresinis has been barrel fermented giving the it a light smoky oak characteristic, Stephanie explained the smoked sun-dried tomatoes on the dish would complement that characteristic. Also the sweetness of the lobster sauce would bring out the fruit. The wine paired well with the delicious salty crisp skinned mulloway that was perfectly cooked with a delicate flake. 

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I can't not mention the Brussel sprouts tossed in a pan with pancetta and rosemary, $9. They were so good Ann and I fenced forks for the last one. When we were finishing our mains we got massive food envy over the table next to us who had ordered the roast suckling pig leg for two, studded with garlic and rosemary, $80. It looked incredible with mouth-watering crackling and an array of different condiments and side dishes. The poor guys next to us looked in two minds whether or not to share with us!

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We ordered coffee and to our delight it comes with petit fours. I am a big fan of the petit four... Soft chewy amaretti bickies, passionfruit marshmallow, dehydrated raspberry meringue and a chocolate truffle made with fregola. Fregola is another Sardinian specialty pasta made with semolina. I would never have thought of making a sweet with it so was very interested to try. It made for a very mild truffle with tasty flecks of orange zest throughout.
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What a perfect way to unwind after a busy week. I can't wait to come back and try the suckling pig which I'm sure would go fabulously with our 2013 Giba Rosso Carignano that they serve by the glass at the moment. And a special thanks to my lunch companion Ann Ouchterlony who casually took all of these gorgeous photos on an iPhone, can you believe it? 
A si biri (Sardinian for ciao for now)
A chent'annos! x