Fifteen years is a very long time by any measure. Restaurants do not enjoy anywhere near the average life span that most of its customers do. So coming back to a restaurant after fifteen years between meals is rare.
Early in this millennium I ventured to the Rocks in Sydney to enjoy, at the time, one of the very best meals of my life. Incredibly new to this echelon of fine dining in Sydney, I didn’t even realise the table next door featured the man himself, Neil Perry, until I was reading the Qantas magazine on the way home to Perth. Not many men have a ponytail like Neil’s and I was a fan having only recently cut my own long hair off! It was unmistakably him.
Rockpool is no longer in the Rocks, but is close by on Bridge Street, a few streets behind Circular Quay, in an old building that is quite breathtaking. While my last visit was long ago, Rockpool has actually been going since 1989 (which has been added to the name to ease the confusion from the similarly named Bar & Grill). That is unique for any restaurant, but this isn’t a family restaurant in the suburbs, this is one of Australia’s consistently best, and most expensive.
Reinventing and changing is required for any going concern to continue with the enthusiasm of youth. While Rockpool matures in experience, I’m fascinated by the creativity on the plate, and the energy of a relatively new location. The reverence to the food is now matched by the splendor of the room, dominated with magnificent arch windows, not needing any dressing up to reveal their beauty. We are dining upstairs and there is cast iron, dark wood, and excellent lighting on the tables, revealing the food, but still keeping a high level of intimacy.
It needs to be a big night out as there simply isn’t the access to funds for most of us to come here as much as we’d like. Eight courses (plus the usual surprise extras) costs $185 and then wine, whether matched, or by the glass (like we chose) is not cheap either.
I remember some of the flavours and ingredients from my first visit many years ago, but the refinement of how some of those same ingredients are used is stunning. One of our favourite dishes during the night was mullet wrapped in a turmeric leaf, with a burnt butter, curry leaf, and almond sauce. Part of the taste was familiar like burnt butter and sage on gnocchi; and part of the taste was surprising as if you had discovered a secret combination. How could this perfectly cooked fish go so well with this sauce?
There is a beef dish using nine score wagyu that is as good as beef can possibly taste, combined with another sauce using oxtail that is reminiscent of teriyaki, but different in a way that makes you pine for this sauce the next time you go back to usual, tried and tested.
Mirin and Japanese peach dressing surround generous pieces of kingfish sashimi, the effect of the oily sauce perfect both in presentation, and then to flavour each taste. The familiar texture of Chinese dumplings are captured in a ball of prawn pieces, and eggy prawn mousse, wrapped in delicious crumb, sitting on a squid ink sauce. These are magnificent dishes.
There are some dishes that don’t hit the same heights but are certainly well above average. The first was the smaller size dish of scampi and gooseberries which is sitting in a herb sauce that is a touch too strong for me. The other one was the goose which is beautifully cooked, and rolled in Asian spices, but just doesn’t have the same impact as other game could. I did enjoy the hot, sweet and sour sauce though.
Besides the excellence in the food, two aspects stood out during the savoury courses. Each waitperson provided professional and friendly service, but the performance was disjointed as a team effort. There were some amusing issues such as getting the hot towel at the beginning of the meal twice from two different floorstaffers. There was also a lightbulb that needed changing on another table which was a little awkward considering all the lights were connected by the same wire, meaning for a few minutes it was more like a disco! Nothing that occurred took away from the evening, but it would probably cause management and Perry to cringe a little. The other aspect to note was the brilliant wines on offer by the glass.
Having started off with a West Winds Sabre G&T we were then recommended a Grüner Veltliner from Canberra which was a good match and something interesting to try. The wine then got to a very high level of quality with Catherine’s Cobaw Ridge Chardonnay from Macedon and my Marsanne/Roussanne blend by Yeringberg which had some age to really lift its impact with the mullet.
With wine service so prompt on each occasion, we decided to order a glass of the Nebbiolo as our goose hit the table. After waiting, and then slowly enjoying each bite, we finished the dish before the staff found the wine (we could see several looking around the upstairs bar). While it left the sommelier less than impressed having finally found the wine, we decided to change our order to a Garnacha/Mataro/Tempranillo from the Great Southern region of Western Australia. It was amazing with the wagyu and we did the right thing stepping up from the lighter red.
It was time for dessert and they could not have been more impressive. To begin, mango sorbet sits atop a stunningly presented meringue wrapped around lime granita, coconut, peanuts and pandan custard. In an age of less sweetness in desserts, finally we were eating a dessert with a savoury edge, but still with a level of sweetness that you need after a great number of savoury courses. The combination was absolutely delicious with all flavours having their time in the sun.
Presentation doesn’t get much better than the Valrohna chocolate dessert. With so many technically challenging elements coming together, this dessert was photogenic like no other dish of the night, the glass shard glistening next to the malt and peach leaf ice cream. We were not done with, ending the night with petit fours in the form of a delectable date tart that is apparently a signature of years gone by at Rockpool, and a macaroon with white chocolate.
There were some astounding moments tonight. The precision in technique and execution shown in many of the dishes we tried must be put down to years of refinement, and an obsession with perfection. While that same attention to detail was not exhibited in all aspects of the experience, it is plain to see why Rockpool is spoken about in terms of the best Australia has to offer.