Impressions from the AGT Restaurant Guide for 2018

Orana – Crab & yoghurt sorbet, codium & sea purslane

My favourite restaurant guide has been released for yet another year. When you narrow down the thousands of restaurants in Australia to a top 100, there are naturally some surprises, but in the end, every single one of those restaurants is a terrific place to have a day or night out.

Getting down to the pointy end is exciting. There are only eight restaurants in the whole of Australia that get three stars. They set themselves apart by doing the basics perfectly, and innovating in a way that is remarkable. They are not always the obvious, but equally, they are certainly not places you stumble over by accident.

Attica – Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Take Orana in Adelaide. If you were to turn up unannounced one evening and somehow get a table, you would initially be skeptical of the price tag, and then be wondering whether you are on “candid camera” as you open your mouth to allow a spoon of green ants to greet your tastebuds. What about Brae in Birregurra, near Geelong. If you were dropped off outside this homestead and farm, you might be searching for the nearest uber to take you back to civilization.

Cutler & Co – Roast chicken, house ground polenta, baby corn & miso

These are not ordinary, everyday experiences. There is a touch of discomfort. It might be the cost, the reverence, the soft gasps, or the sheer oddity of three star dining. But like most experiences, when you are out of your comfort zone, or at least on the edge of it, the memories are bigger than the moment.

Vue De Monde

When Shannon Bennett says that he wants his customers to have a comforting experience, he doesn’t mean eating meat and three veg in your tracksuit in front of the television. He means he wants the experience to be memorable for different reasons, and for his staff to do everything to make such a potentially awkward meal something to aspire to do again, and to relive in stories for the meantime.

Momofuku – beef, radish, fermented black bean

There are the unassuming places. Momofuku Seiobo looks a bit oddly placed in The Star casino and entertainment complex. The Bridge Room is almost quaint. Attica is in the suburbs. Cutler & Co sounds like a ye olde medicinal shop, placed in one of the quieter parts of Fitzroy. They were not dining destinations before the owners set up shop and created something special.

The Bridge Room – Aerated passionfruit, roasted nougatine, passionfruit ice cream, passionfruit seed powder, glass biscuit

Then there’s Quay. That is the one that stands out because it is entirely appropriate. A restaurant overlooking the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House serving food with Ferrari price tags. The achievement of Peter Gilmore keeping this restaurant at the top of its game is surely not lost when you eat at some of its neighbours.

Brae – Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

It is the first time I’ve been to all eight of the three star restaurants. I believe they all deserve a spot for what they have achieved, and what they are currently doing. I love the fact that really none of the top five have a view (sorry Brae, the farm is actually very serene), and I love the fact that with all of these restaurants while the basics are done very, very well; it is the food that is the reason they are so brilliant.

Well done to Australian Gourmet Traveller on a sensational list. A real statement has been made by putting Orana as number one whether the Sydney and Melbourne dominant audience likes it or not. I have never had a meal like it, and that is what separating yourself is all about.

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Sepia – Sydney – Friday 31 March 2017 – Dinner

Autumn Chocolate Forest – soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond, rose petal cream, blackberry sorbet, Black Genoa fig jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, crystallised bronze fennel, native voilets

The full circle. One thing is constant though, I have always wanted to dine here. Originally when it opened it was above the Sydney office of the accounting firm I was working for, and I wasn’t sure the feeling I would have dining below work. Last year I heard rumours it was to close, and I wasn’t sure it would be on its A game.

Green tea, tarragon, yuzu “chiffon”

This year I was more than enticed and booked early, as you need to do. We were staying a block away, and it just made sense. Earlier in the day of the encounter I heard that it was to open in Melbourne, and not long after we finished our meal, I realised that the restaurant was actually closing in December and moving to Melbourne!

Snacks from left – Tempura Oba Leaf; Hiramasa Kingfish; Saikou (best) Salmon; Bonito and purple yam

I’m ecstatic for two reasons. I live in Melbourne, and there is something special about this experience that is bigger than the city it resides in. Sepia is a big night out, a special occasion, a celebration, and an event in itself. It has built an envied reputation for a very good reason.

Somehow, on a non-descript, almost ugly corner of the Sydney CBD, the inside of the restaurant and wine bar, is a world away. It is dark and sexy, open yet intimate, with some fine dining features, and bistro style flourishes. The banquettes are comfortable, and the dark wooded tables nice and large, giving an air of luxury.

Service, especially from our sommelier, is exceptional – equal parts professional, comfortable and approachable. There is one draw back though of a very dedicated and diverse floorstaff. Some of the descriptions of the food are difficult to decipher whether by accent, noise or a combination of the two. This means that without a menu you have only a partial understanding of what you are eating. Purposely I have written this review without looking at the menu as I think that is a better way of describing my personal take on the incredible dishes we ate during the evening. However, the captions on the photos are the chef’s descriptions you receive later as you leave (unless you request earlier).

The other potential drawback with not having a menu is you are either at the mercy of the matched tastings (which we rarely do) or the sommelier. Luckily we all worked together, Catherine and I suggesting what we would like to drink, and our sommelier confirming which styles would suit multiple courses during the evening. She was spot on.

Tuna, egg yolk, fromage blanc, unpasteurised soy sauce, wasabi

After our Melbourne Gin Company and tonic aperitif, we started with a glass of the Thalassitis Assyrtiko from Santorini by Gaia. It was indeed versatile with light fruit and great balance, something which was needed with our four snacks to begin. Those snacks included some delightful minced kingfish surrounded by a crispy seaweed (which turned out to be tatami iwashi – a dried flat sheet of sardine), that was a strong accompaniment. There was a leaf above a prawn cracker like wafer with a version of seafood sauce atop. It was a nice beginning.

Next we had a glorious folded piece of tuna, with some dollops of egg yolk and a puree that tasted like creamy artichoke. When you cut into the tuna out splashed some soy sauce, not unlike what happened to my wallet a little later at the end of a great meal.

Spanner crab, heirloom tomato, brown butter emulsion, sake vinegar jelly, pea and horseradish

Our next course was a more substantial parcel of generously portioned spanner crab, which was probably the highlight of my savoury courses, but not by any great margin given the excellence shown by the kitchen. The presentation included some dusting at the table which struck the thin vegetable layer topping the crab with a cool punch, providing contrast and interest between hot and cold, soft gorgeous crab, and the slightly firmer vegetable (which was actually heirloom tomato).

Butter poached black cod, pink and white turnips, finger lime, ice plant, smoked soy dashi

We had what looked like a small piece of fish served with a broth in a little bowl, but turned out to be densely packed and huge on flavour, the portion just right given the richness. The dashi was addictive and I almost finished the last drop. The fish was firm, but delicate, with a pronounced flavour, reminiscent of cod. Some of the vegetable additions in the broth didn’t add to the flavour, but did create some textural balance. By now we were on to a superb chardonnay by Benjamin Laroux from Bourgogne and it delivered an exceptional match, but was expensive.

Chargrilled lamb breast, roasted garlic emulsion, Mexican sour cucumbers, sweet bamboo, daikon

One of the dishes I found a little weaker, but still of a high standard anywhere else, was the torn lamb. One of my pieces was a little chewy, and while the flavour was actually quite intense, the accompaniments just didn’t work for me as well as the other dishes. The second meat dish however ticked all the boxes. Wagyu needs skilled cooking and it received it. The pine mushroom and cream also intensely flavoured, but pairing perfectly. With these courses I tried a wine called Meandro from the Douro in Portugal that had a good lick of alcohol, leading to some slightly jammy fruit on the palate. Catherine went with the Nero d’Avola and I was a little jealous, the savouriness exhibited perfect for finely tuned wagyu.

David Blackmore wagyu sirloin, pine mushroom, kombu, mushroom cream, grilled baby kale leaf

We love dessert, and it appears the team behind Sepia do too. You could hardly call either of our two pre-desserts inferior to the main dessert, in fact, we both were left wondering how it could get any better. The first was a version of strawberries and cream, using alpine strawberries. Just amazing. Then Catherine’s favourite of Sepia’s version of chiffon cake arrived, and as well as being beautifully presented, it was divine.

Alpine strawberries, salted white chocolate chantilly, frozen strawberry and yoghurt

For the main dessert we had a choice and we both chose differently to get a taste of each offering. Catherine had the “apple”, and I had the “chocolate”. It was a bit of trickery, with the apple coming out in a half shell of chocolate, with apple ice cream topped by a medley of tastes and textures. Mine came out looking like a pear in the woods, but was actually a quenelle of chocolate, on a bed of dried fruits, crumbs, and more chocolate. It is a signature dish, and for obvious reason. There is a confidence exuded from the presentation, and the incredible technique used to execute the flavours and textures cannot be easily expressed in words.

Chocolate, caramelised apple cream, artichoke, blackcurrant, cocoa nib, pecan brittle

As I sipped the last few drops from my ten year old Madeira by Henriques and Henriques it became quite apparent that this was one of the top meals I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime. While the memory is obviously vivid, I expect on further reflection in coming months and years that this should easily make my top 10 experiences. Not to mention it is moving to Melbourne, just like I did almost ten years ago. While loving where it has come from, I’m sure it too, will never look back.

Sepia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stokehouse – St Kilda – Thursday 23 March 2017 – Dinner

There are a host of reasons we love to go out to eat. In a relative sense, there are not many restaurants that create more than the experience itself. Every now and then though, something more comes out of a visit. For Catherine and I, our first date at Stokehouse continued through to marriage!

Yellowfin tuna ceviche

I remember our lunch far better than I normally would. It was an incredibly hot November day. So hot that I brought a backpack with a towel so I could have a swim afterwards. St Kilda was pumping, and my taxi took at least 20 minutes just to get down Fitzroy Street. Catherine looked beautiful and had gone to a heap of effort.

We started off with oysters and I had no idea it was the first time for my guest. The things you do on first dates! The restaurant had a celebratory feel the day after Stakes Day at Flemington. Every aspect was wonderful and it goes without saying that it was the best first date (and the last) I’ll ever have.

Poached marron salad

When we found it had been razed by fire there was a sudden sadness. We knew with such an iconic place, rebuilding was likely, and that is why we are here tonight, a few months after the reopening. It is modern. These days, recreating the original would probably be as difficult and expensive as making a bold new statement. The design is stylish, making great use of the beach view, with enough detail inside to keep interest in both.

Our greeting, through to the goodbye, were warm and friendly. It seems the floor has found its feet. We took up the offering for a drink on the terrace to begin. Watching the sun go down is one of those added extras that is difficult to value. As long as the view doesn’t outshine the food, or give the restaurant something to hide behind, it is extremely valuable to the way you are feeling as you begin your meal.

Heirloom tomato salad

Once seated and reading through the menu, I realised that Stokehouse wasn’t primarily about seafood anymore. In fact, only two of the six mains are fish. I was in the mood for seafood and ordered both the special ceviche of yellowfin tuna, and a couple of Sydney Rock oysters to begin, plus the fish and chips for my main. Catherine ordered the marron salad which would have been my choice, and also the market fish of Barramundi. We were undoubtedly going to try dessert too.

Fish and chips

Our sommelier was particularly helpful at providing alternatives to the bottle I was thinking of, but in the end we stayed on course with the Louis Michel Premier Cru Chablis. He was right that the wine is quite light for a chardonnay, but it is exquisitely made, and was a pleasure to drink, especially with our entrees. The yellowfin tuna ceviche showed off the star ingredient. It had a pleasant amount of citrus, and was superbly presented. Interestingly the dusting on top was bayleaf, and that worked too. The Sydney Rock oysters were exactly what you want to eat on the beach and would be a great entree alone this evening. Catherine’s poached marron salad with a motley of fresh vegetables, was a brilliant way to start. The marron beautifully cooked and working nicely with the finger lime cream and rhubarb vinaigrette.

Barramundi with smoked almond puree, beurre noisette and carrot reduction

The fish and chips are not my usual order at a restaurant like Stokehouse but tonight I really felt like fish, and I wanted to try something different to Catherine. Her Barramundi was a perfect serve with a good fillet of fish, perfectly cooked, in a smoked almond puree, with a beurre noisette (brown butter) sauce, and carrot reduction. Each bite I tried was delicious, though I was very happy with my own choice. The lightly battered whiting, on top of a picket fence of thick chips in a pool of tartare sauce, was exactly how fish and chips should be, but rarely are. Our waitperson had suggested the heirloom tomato salad to cut through the oil, and that was a good idea, with several kinds of tomatoes all exhibiting good flavour. A simple enhancement would be some more basil throughout.

‘The Bombe’

We definitely had room for dessert, and we needed it! Catherine’s ‘The Bombe’ was a terrific take on the classic dish. The white chocolate parfait in the centre, next to the strawberry sorbet, all housed in a well executed meringue, were all delicious and beyond. We like desserts that don’t hide the fact that they are sweet and this was a prime example, without being sickly (though it is a large serving). On the flip side, my dried lime cheesecake, was more restrained on the sweetness, but still delivered in spades. This version wasn’t your classic, but it wasn’t so much deconstructed as just not having a base. The mango and coconut curd are friends with the creamy cheesy lime, and while again it was a good serving, I could have kept going.

Dried lime cheesecake

The original Stokehouse felt a bit more sleek at times, but the new version is still finding its feet. One thing is for sure, all the floorstaff were eager to make our night memorable, and they succeeded. The food we ate was up to scratch for what you expect of a place with the reputation Stokehouse must carry. That reputation creates expectation so we were careful, but it is impossible to not be excited by the potential embodied by this restaurant. Thinking about the experience brings a smile to my face.

Stokehouse St Kilda Beach Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Attica – Ripponlea – Thursday 28 July 2016 – Dinner

Emu's Egg

Emu’s Egg

Expectations are one of the most important ingredients in any restaurant experience. Try as we might to lower them to a reasonable level, the more hype, and the longer the wait between booking and dining, the more difficult it is to not over inflate. For me, tonight’s dinner at Attica is the most prone to setting expectations to unreasonable levels, so I jotted them down in the hope of being objective.

Cook's Leaves

Cook’s Leaves

There are many obvious, and a few less obvious reasons, why I expect to have one of the best restaurant experiences of my life here. Of course, Attica is Melbourne’s highest ranked restaurant on any number of guides, over a number of years. The less obvious reason is that I already rank Ben Shewry’s temple as one of the top experiences I’ve had in Australia, and around the world. But that was five years ago. Now that it is mentioned in the same breath as some of the world’s greatest restaurants, you hope for the small (but important) improvements you’ve read a little about to take it to the next level.

Chicken Carrot

Chicken Carrot

As we walk out the back to the restaurant garden, to be greeted by one of the pastry chefs, and are offered tea and a home made mint slice biscuit (that is delicious), we get a chance to reflect on one of our great meals in the cold winter air. So far, in the lead up to dessert, we have tried twelve snacks, and four courses of savoury dishes. There are highlights; but there are no lowlights. It is hard to imagine being happier with a meal. Attica is putting an emphasis on native Australian ingredients, in a completely approachable manner, with hardly an ounce of pomp.

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Catherine with her Cuppa Tea (post mint slice!)

Personally I like challenging food that makes you think and take notice, and there are different ways to achieve wonder and awe. At Orana, which also has an Australiana focus, you are presented with ingredients like green ants that do taste great, but are challenging to approach. I think Attica is making you take notice in a different way, with more subtlety, and some familiarity in the flavour combinations.

Gazza's Vegemite Pie

Gazza’s Vegemite Pie

An example that has stuck in my mind for this past week is the saltbush fed lamb pie. Classical Australian presentation (resting on a brown paper bag), the pie has some manchego grated over it, and there is vegemite in the filling with the saltbush lamb. It is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and I can’t stop thinking about it. There is some challenge in a few ingredients though.

Aged Santa Claus Melon

Aged Santa Claus Melon

To preface, I haven’t mentioned service yet, but our waitpersons use the perfect balance of professionalism and friendliness, along with genuine care. Towards the beginning we have a conversation about the meal ahead. It is the type of discussion that puts you at ease because you realise that your waitpersons are there to guide and improve your experience, and there doesn’t seem to be this overarching will of the chefs being pushed upon you, like some other fine dining establishments.

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya

Our waitperson explains that one thing they need to confirm we are comfortable eating is the kangaroo tartare. Here we are talking about raw meat, and a particular meat that isn’t eaten often by most people. We are happy to try it as we trust the ability of the chefs and the quality of the ingredients. Catherine did hesitate though. As it turns out, our first savoury course is one that you really do not want to miss. Cleverly the raw roo is hidden under a beautifully presented collage of thinly sliced red carrots. Not only does the carrot work for presentation, it adds texture to the dish. The roo is beautifully seasoned and it seems this is a terrific way to eat this meat, which is always a difficult one to cook.

Smashed Avo on Toast

Smashed Avo on Toast

An ode to our breakfast culture comes in the form of “smashed avo on toast” with minced avocado, tiny mint, finger lime, and apple, on a crisp cracker. It evokes memories of the first time you tried this now staple café dish, and the intricacy pushes the boundaries of what is already a wonderful classic combination.

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Alongside the playful, and the intriguing, is the classical. Glorious marron from my home state of Western Australia, is perfectly cooked, and comes with a lemon myrtle sauce, which is a feature ingredient of several dishes, including the equally sublime scallop snack. We were having wine by the glass off a reasonably priced and diverse list, and with this dish the elegant Domenica Roussanne Marsanne 2013 from Beechworth, worked beautifully.

Hand Dived Scallop

Hand Dived Scallop

There were some other wine highlights, starting with the 2008 Lark Hill Sparkling from Canberra, which had the versatility you need with several courses of snacks. The Pinot Meunier Pinot Noir 2011 from Iron Bay Pot in Tasmania was also particularly good with the kangaroo tartare.

Stemware by Zalto

Stemware by Zalto

The famous potato cooked in its own soil has been replaced by an equally gorgeous “all parts of the pumpkin” dish that is a familiar concept having seen a similar focus at O.My recently. Texture from the seeds; richness from the flesh; and complexity from the sour beer cream infused with juice from the skin. It comes together in a dish that makes you feel like Shewry could turn his restaurant vegetarian tomorrow, and it would still be just as good.

All Part of the Pumpkin

All Parts of the Pumpkin

There is little theatrics, but a lot of novelty done in an intelligent way. The wallaby blood pikelet sits atop a playful recipe that is not so much a recipe, but a larrikin’s tale. The crumbed mussels have some extra crunch from the pig face succulent topping, but are not as intriguing as the painted mussel shell. The carrot, which curls when put in freezing water, is presented in a hollow rooster dish, but the flavour of the chicken minced with sorrel, kale and tarragon, is impeccable, far outshadowing any of the fun presentation.

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

Wallaby Blood Pikelet

The other dish that stands out from earlier is the plainly presented pork neck. This is meat that sings. Astounded by the flavour I have to ask how it is done and learn that there is a combination of different cooking techniques over a 24 hour period, including smoking and grilling, to get to the depth of flavour that you only get a small but memorable taste of. We finish our chat outside, cut a tulip for our first dessert course, hand it to the chef, and resume our seats.

Smoked Pork

Smoked Pork

We are at the back of the restaurant in a smaller slightly separated room, laden with black curtains that do a good job to reduce noise levels. You feel a world away from Glen Eira Road outside, and it is a good looking restaurant, without that aspect being a particularly topical feature. It is more about minimising distraction from the food, and the good lighting is an example of the focus.

Tulips DIY

Tulips DIY

Our Tulips DIY comes out as our first dessert. We have just been told that there are only five edible tulip varieties in the world and the rest are very poisonous! Luckily these are edible and the fruit and cream cheese inside is delicious. If we thought that was a pretty dish, the next was almost as pretty, and definitely intricate.

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Byron Sunrise and Fresh Coconut Cream

Three thimbles of apple, sitting in coconut cream, make for a more savoury dessert, but one that is still very nice. Crying out for something a bit sweeter, our prayers were answered with a decadent chocolate sponge, soaked in chocolate sauce with a yoghurt ice cream to soften the richness.

Cheftales

Cheftales

Finishing with another playful, and delicious taste, our “cheftales” are another ode to an Aussie classic, but again the take by Attica is better than the original, and comes with a “Who am I?” related to one of Australia’s numerous great chefs. There really has been absolutely nothing that didn’t work tonight. Quality through and through.

Lance Wiffin's Mussel

Lance Wiffin’s Mussel

We go to restaurants for many reasons and we bring our expectations with us. All of my lofty expectations were realised, or even exceeded tonight, and that is no mean feat when you are off to one of the world’s great restaurants. With some good measuring sticks to compare some of the native Australian ingredients and their use (namely Orana and Igni) I can see the subtle reasons why Attica is rated at the top of the pile.
Attica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rockpool – Sydney, City – Friday 1 April 2016 – Dinner

Valhrona chocolate with macadamia, glazed fig, malt and peach leaf ice cream

Valhrona chocolate with macadamia, glazed fig, malt and peach leaf ice cream

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.

Coorong yellow eye Mullet, cooked in turmeric leaf, sauce amandine

Coorong yellow eye Mullet, cooked in turmeric leaf, sauce amandine

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.

Roasted Goose from Llangothlin with hot, sweet and sour sauce

Roasted Goose from Llangothlin with hot, sweet and sour sauce

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?

Blue Mountains Wagyu softly grilled, served with oxtail sauce, wasabi and fresh lime

Blue Mountains Wagyu softly grilled, served with oxtail sauce, wasabi and fresh lime

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.

Kingfish sashimi on enriched Koshihikari rice with Japanese peach and mirin dressing

Kingfish sashimi on enriched Koshihikari rice with Japanese peach and mirin dressing

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.

King prawn mousse, rolled in pangrattato, on squid ink sauce

King prawn mousse, rolled in pangrattato, on squid ink sauce

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.

Scampi with grilled cucumber and sherry dressing

Scampi with grilled cucumber and sherry dressing

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.

Vacherin of Pandan custard with lime granita and mango sorbet

Vacherin of Pandan custard with lime granita and mango sorbet

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.

Rockpool Est. 1989 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Guillaume – Paddington – Sunday 3 April 2016 – Lunch

Passionfruit

Passionfruit

What better way to plan our next trip to Europe than in a beautiful dining room in Paddington, with the charm of provincial France? French food in Australia was once so cliched to the point of being stale, but modern expressions are anything but dull.

For many years, Guillaume Brahimi has been elevating the cause of French dining in Australia. The wow factor you have from dining in the Opera House is gone, left in the wake of a luxurious part-French, part-Hamptons house. I only tried the Opera House version once; an experience that provided enough great moments to merit today’s Sunday lunch.

Amuse

Amuse

Sunday lunch is only offered at Guillaume on the first Sunday of each month. There is a five course set menu with a choice of two desserts for $150 a person. The diners here have come for more than just the food, it is a glamorous feeling and there is an atmosphere of excitement.

Kingfish

Kingfish

This feeling in the dining room requires a start of Champagne and Perrier Jouet seems just right. Luckily it goes beautifully with the amuse bouche, which is a delicious diced tuna concoction complete with foam for a bit of pizzazz. Next up is our first course of Kingfish from Bateau Bay with smoked eel, shiso, walnuts and apple. Guillaume spells out where each star ingredient is from, and it shows the care and pride taken in his approach to sourcing. Looking at the size of this dish we take a deep breath knowing we probably should not have eaten breakfast, and a bircher muesli at that! In any case, each bite of the generous portion of kingfish is delicious and the combination with smoked eel works along with the classic apple and walnut flavours, and a gorgeous lemon sauce. If nothing else, a touch more apple for each bite would be good, but this is a fantastic start to the meal.

Hens of the Woods

Hens of the Woods

With that positive start behind us we go on to the “Hens of the Woods” dish of intrigue. Catherine and I had been talking about how we don’t miss the proliferation of egg based dishes during degustation menus on the Friday night. So initially the egg “oeuf mollet” from Bulla in Victoria was not overly exciting. But if any culture can prepare the perfect egg, it is the French, and when adorned with gorgeous mushrooms, truffle, and the crisp layered potato, you have a terrific dish.

KIng George Whiting

KIng George Whiting

By this stage we had moved on to the Paringa chardonnay, which naturally suits the next course. From Port Lincoln in South Australia, the King George Whiting is extremely exciting. This is one of my favourite fishes, but it needs accompaniments that lift it given its subtle flavour. The whiting itself is perfectly cooked, but the accompaniments of celeriac puree, and the sauce, whilst good, was not the quality of the previous dishes. The dish needed texture, but it was a bit fiddly with the crisp bread. There is some work to do.

Beef

Beef

The next dish was something else though. The wagyu beef from New England in New South Wales is stunning. Paris mash is served at the table from the fancy saucepan. This mash and the turnip puree are outstanding accompaniments, and the jus is delightful too. Adding to the finesse of the dish is a glorious wine from Saint-Emilion combining merlot and cabernet franc in the best possible way, with just the right age to work with the beef.

Valrhona chocolate

Valrhona chocolate

We had to try each of the desserts, so Catherine ordered the passionfruit souffle, and I chose the Valrhona chocolate. The souffle sources passionfruit from Gympie, but the star of any amazing souffle is the technique of the pastry chef. This is no exception. Add some theatre from the pouring of creme anglaise at the table and you have an exemplary performance. The banana and passionfruit sorbet is perfect too, adding refreshment and balance to each taste.

Petit fours

Petit fours

They are both different, but the Valrhona chocolate is the equal of the other dessert. The components of chocolate shards, biscuit, hazelnut cream, and textural chocolate crumb, all combine into a complete and delicious dessert. It doesn’t get more French than some souffle and chocolate for dessert, and we are perfectly fine with that! On top of this the pre-dessert was also beautiful (lychee, mango, coconut featured) and the petit fours we tried of the several offered were all fantastic!

The service is performed by a mainly French staff, adding to the feel of the restaurant. On the whole the operation is seamless, but there are some minor misses, mainly with my Aussie accent, that mean there is still the opportunity to improve. However, on one particular front the staff went above and beyond, meaning small misses can easily be overlooked.

To say this is a pleasant way to spend Sunday afternoon is a dramatic understatement. The servings are generous, the ingredients in the dishes are indulgent, and more importantly, work together in mostly classical ways, but with the right touches to enhance the flavour. Add some elegant wines to the mix, professional service and a dining room to remember, and you have all the hallmarks of what I love in a restaurant.

Guillaume Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Minamishima – Richmond – Thursday 18 February 2016 – Dinner

Otoro Aburi

Otoro Aburi (lightly seared tuna)

Acclaimed fine dining sushi bar restaurant Minamishima is perfectly simple and beautifully complicated. What about this restaurant, or more accurately the talents of chef Koichi Minamishima, has possessed thousands of people to pay $150 a head for multiple courses of sushi?

I am out of my depth here and I have known it since Minamishima opened. While I’ve travelled a fair bit, I have not been to Japan, and I have no idea what is authentically Japanese, and what is the Western attempt. It is certainly not difficult to get a good impression of what great Japanese is all about with the likes of Tetsuya and Nobu now staples of the dining landscape in Australia. I have never had more than ten pieces of sushi that are all different though.

Calamari

Calamari

I must admit I had to ask the restaurant to email me a list of the dishes because we had a private dining room behind us that was rather loud, so the quietly spoken Japanese waitstaff and chefs were no match when speaking through the courses. They do not provide a menu of any sort either, before or after the meal, which they should think about for people like me who are easily confused! Several courses of seafood consisted of ingredients I have never tried or even heard of. There were so many courses that I’m just going to write about what I really liked.

Hotate (scallop)

Hotate (scallop)

It really is all about the sushi, presented in the nigiri style. The rice is heavenly, consistent across the board, and I’ve never eaten sushi rice like it. Every time I detected wasabi it was perfectly uniform across the rice too, but hidden by the most pristine, often shiny, incredibly fresh, pieces of seafood that you will ever see in Melbourne. The toppings were so small that it was hard to notice they were there, but given I put the whole piece in my mouth each time, I can only imagine the quantity added a touch, without overpowering the star. Put together the presentation was on several occasions quite breathtaking.

Otoro Gunkan (tuna belly)

Otoro Gunkan (tuna belly)

My Western propensity for cooked food told the story. Without doing the maths there were say fifteen courses of sushi and but for the three courses of tuna, my favourites were all cooked very lightly. The hotate or scallop sushi was quite incredible. That subtlety of the scallop perfectly presented with nothing to outshine it. The prawn sushi was lightly cooked too and I found it better than the optional additional course of scampi which, while beautifully presented, was strong tasting with a firmer texture, and not as good in my opinion.

Scampi

Scampi

The three tuna courses were very exciting. I have never had tuna belly of the quality provided by Minamishima, and it is the seafood equivalent of one of my favourites, bone marrow. As much as I loved the belly, the “Otoro Aburi” was exquisite. Slightly seared it still had a certain sublime fattiness, but for me, a deeper flavour. From these highs it was always going to be difficult for the Akami tuna to raise the bar, but it was still gorgeous.

Anago Kyoto style Box sushi

Anago Kyoto style Box sushi

In the beginning white fish featured for four courses before other forms of seafood, followed by tuna, and more dominant flavoured fish towards the end. I love kingfish and the closest to it was the king dory that came out as the first piece of sushi. The lightly flavoured fish was a good familiar start to proceedings. Towards the end my highlight (again slightly cooked sorry) was the Anago Kyoto style box sushi. The richness of flavour a highlight.

Saba (mackerel)

Saba (mackerel)

As I said it is all about the sushi. You need to dine at Minamishima understanding that you are having an expensive, but memorable sushi experience.

I was not overly impressed with the first course of Ama Abi (sweet shrimp) with Kurumi (walnut) tofu. I am sure there is a lack of appreciation here, but I can’t apologise for not being familiar with softly textured tofu in a broth, though the broth was very nice. The tamagoyaki (omelette) was delicious as a refresher following the last piece of sushi and was the only overtly sweet aspect of the tasting. Before dessert we had a beautifully presented stuffed zucchini flower with prawn paste and yuzu dashi broth, showing off both technique and use of subtle flavours. That was the last good dish because the Hassaku (citrus) Jelly and Hojicha (green tea) ice cream was not. The instruction from the waitstaff was to mix it all up which lost the potentially great flavour in the green tea ice cream. As we started our meal I had noticed the couple next to us almost not touch theirs after initial tastes (but they had not followed instructions). It is a pretty dish, but it needs some work.

Hassaku Jelly Hojicha ice cream

Hassaku Jelly Hojicha ice cream

I would never order the matching wines again. From a great start with The Lost Plot 2004 sparkling from Mornington, and a nice Austrian (2013 Hiedler Gruner Veltiner), we descended into a spiral of unappealing wines. For novelty value it was good to have one or two sips of the wine from Japan, but they do not make a lot of wine, and there is good reason why. The French rose was lacking brilliance for a meal like this, and the Georgian wine (from the origins of wine making) was offensive. We took it in good spirit, knowing the sommelier was trying something different, but some of the wine actually took away from the excellence of the food. I should have ordered the sake, but I am not familiar enough with it, to properly appreciate having several tastes. Next time I’d focus on full glasses of the first two styles.

Mr Minamishima (closest) in action

Mr Minamishima (closest) in action

All of the chefs preparing the dishes, and the waitstaff on the floor, were professional and friendly. Once we had the courage to ask some questions, we started to gain some knowledge that is not necessarily provided as a matter of course. This is so different that I feel a bit more education could help, but I plan to make another visit and ask all the questions I still have now.

King dory

King dory

It is only five days since I tried this intriguing restaurant. The lasting memory of the food makes me want to go to Japan more than any other experience I’ve ever had. There is something very powerful in that, and in what Koichi Minamishima is doing for our expectations of what excellent Japanese is all about.

Minamishima Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato