Imagine something you secretly drank at 11 years old becoming a bestselling item at the wine bar you open many decades later.
The drink is Hartwall 'Lonkero': a highly refreshing grapefruit-gin soda that was produced for the 1952 Finnish Olympic Games.
It's believed to be the first pre-mixed drink and was invented so bartenders could quickly deal with the crush of international visitors to Finland's capital of Helsinki. The 'Lonkero' was meant to be a one-off for the global sporting event, but locals loved it and the gin-spiked fizz is still around today. "It's like the national beverage there," says Petänen. "It's so popular."
On Cafe Paci's menu, it's described as something that's consumed "in all saunas [in] Finland".
"It's like the national beverage there."
Petänen, who grew up in Tampere, in the country's south, remembers drinking it at age 11. Sure, he had to be sneaky about getting his supply (Lonkero has a small 5.5 per cent hit of gin per can), but there were ways to convince older kids to get you a tinnie or two. "It's a summer drink," he says – although people will still sit outside with a Lonkero in early spring, even if the temperature has dropped down to five degrees.
Back in Sydney, diners at Cafe Paci can't stop ordering it – even without Finnish saunas around. In less than two weeks, Petänen has sold as many grapefruit-gin sodas as he did in six months of his former Cafe Paci pop-up in Darlinghurst.
The amount of Lonkero that people are now guzzling is not the only difference between the new version of Cafe Paci – which now is located permanently in Newtown – and the old pop-up that Petänen ran from 2013 to 2015 in east Sydney.
Although Petänen was awarded Chef of the Year status by the Good Food Guide during the pop-up's run, the latest version of Cafe Paci moves away from the fine-dining style the Darlinghurst site was known for (although good news: the brilliant carrot, orange and liquorice dessert from the OG menu is sticking around).
Instead, it's more inspired by the casual, wine-bar feel of the That's Amore events he ran with sommelier Giorgio de Maria over the past few years.
Petänen's time cooking at O Tama Carey's Lankan Filling Station – prior to opening Cafe Paci in Newtown – has also flavoured what he's serving today. The devilled eggs with trout roe at his restaurant, for instance, are inspired by the spiced butter that Carey made at Lankan Filling Station. "When I did prep shifts there, I'd boil eggs and dip them into the hot butter and eat it myself as a snack," he says.
The hot sauce Petänen produced for Cafe Paci's barbajuan (the fried spinach and ricotta pastries known as the national dish of Monaco) is a milder version of the condiment served at Lankan Filling Station, while the fermented pineapple with smoked ham, mustard and bread sticks at Cafe Paci pay tribute to Carey's acharu. "So many things" at Cafe Paci are inspired by the six months he spent cooking hoppers and other Sri Lankan staples at her restaurant, he says.
For dessert, here, dark shards of cocoa are topped with colourful sprinkles. Underneath this graphic landmass is a baked chocolate mousse that the chef has frozen – which gives the chocolate a chewy, textural, cakey profile.
He says he got the idea while listening to chef Wylie DuFresne being interviewed on David Chang's podcast.
"[David] was saying that Wylie's doughnuts are best when they eat them frozen," he says. So Petänen let his dessert frost up – and it gives the chocolate a brilliant, moreish mouth-chew.
While the chef credits where he gets his ideas from, there are plenty of examples of his pure-cut originality on the Cafe Paci menu, like cauliflower that's pan-roasted with butter, olive oil, garlic and chilli: "just like how you'd make spaghetti aglio olio," he says.
The crisp, charred cauliflower is served with a cheese sauce that's essentially a Parmesan-topped risotto that's blitzed through a blender. The pairing is ridiculously good: the kind that leads to you deep-cleaning your plate with the sweep of your cutlery so you don't miss a trace of each crumbly, cheesy portion.
A dish of thinly sliced squash, yoghurt, chilli and pomelo might sound strange on paper – but is the kind of creatively balanced dish that you expect from Petänen's ultra-inventive brain. The left-field menu is well-matched by de Mario's original list of drinks, which range from a medicinal-tasting mead to the kind of boutique wine that one well-travelled diner from Berlin had only ever spotted in one other restaurant.
"We run out of food every night."
So far, Cafe Paci has been a success since it opened in late October.
"We run out of food every night," says Petänen. "We try to keep up."
But the chef continues to create new dishes, like handkerchief pasta with sweetcorn butter with basil puree, and a version of the Scandinavian classic Jansson's Temptation. However, he says one Finnish writer complained that the chef can't call it that, as Petänen's presentation departs from the traditional casserole style.
"It's potato cooked in clarified butter, whipped sour cream, anchovies, chives and pickles. It's exactly the same ingredients as you'd have on a Jansson's Temptation,” he says.
An alternative name? "Pasi's Temptation", although the chef says's he's concerned it won't sell.
Perhaps he could just say that it's eaten in Finnish saunas everywhere.
"Exactly!" he says. "Normally you'd have it after Finnish saunas as well, with a Lonkero. We'll try that."
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