Thursday, 12 September 2013

Aria Brisbane - tasting menu that missed the mark

It's amazing how often the best laid plans can be disrupted.  A group of work buddies had asked me if I wanted to come along and check out the Aria tasting menu, and of course I agreed immediately.  Plans were made, dates booked, arrangements set for babysitters and hotel accommodations were locked in and we were all set to go. Then something came up and I couldn't make it and we all decided to change the date, with some considerable effort for some.

As the second date approached and plans were all set, again I gave the terrible news to the team that I couldn't make it and that they should go without me.  Again the date was changed as the team really wanted us to go together, and again the date was changed with much inconvenience.  This was all before my New York trip and the new date was scheduled well after the trip and was locked in, rock solid!

Finally, on the third attempt to get along to check out the Aria Tasting menu we managed to pull it together, albeit with a much reduced group, which I felt a little guilty about.  After the many false starts, there was a huge amount of anticipation about heading to Aria.  The team had read and loved my previous blog post about Aria (see post here) and all had the fine diner on their list of 'must do before I die' places to eat.  Aria, after all, is one of the best restaurants in the country.

We purposely chose the Aria tasting menu because it provided the best way to sample as many of the Matt Moran creations as possible, even though the menu was a little on the pricey side.  We also had a couple of vegetarians in the group and the Aria vego tasting menu has a fantastic reputation, some would say a better reputation than the full tasting menu. Interestingly, this was also mentioned when the booking was made and a confirmation that we would also be looking at the vegetarian tasting menu, with a comment that the table will be jealous of those partaking the animal protein free meal.

SC and I were slowly getting ready at home when I thought I would check the actual dining time, lucky I did as we were planning on arriving at 7pm, not ideal when its a 6:30 reservation!  Luckily we were able to get ready in a flash and still arrive just on time.  JC and CM were already seated at the bar area enjoying a pre dinner drink, so the four of us continued on in the bar until SG and MH arrived a short time later.  Deciding not to continue drinking at the bar, we asked to be shown to our table.

We had already informed the restaurant that we were dining on the tasting menu, so we each had a copy of the tasting menu set in front of us so we could track the meal as it arrived.  First up though it was the offer of fresh bread and before too long an amuse bouche was placed in front of us.  As is usually the case at Aria, the meal started off with a soup in a shot glass, in this instance it was a corn soup with an interesting flavour but was not as nice as previous iterations.

The tasting menu at Aria is short at seven courses, but comprises some of the classic Aria dishes of the last few years.  First up was the Tuna - soy marinated tuna and octopus carpaccio with cucumber gazpacho.  The dish was a simply yet elegantly presented plate of raw fish, with tuna presented two ways and a thinly sliced piece of octopus tentacle.  The soy marinated tuna was more like a tartare and was fresh and had some good flavour but was a little 'mushy' on the palate.  The relatively thick cut of tuna sashimi was the pick on the plate, which was fresh and delicious.  There was not a lot to the octopus and it was actually too thinly sliced to get much flavour and the promised cucumber gazpacho was missing on my plate.  There were a couple little balls of cucumber on the plate, but the really added nothing to the dish.

Our second dish was actually the same as the first vegetarian dish that SG and MH had raved so much about.  I could see why, the salad of grilled carrots with buffalo milk yoghurt, quinoa and a raisin purée had been such a hit with SG and MH, it was pretty and it was really tasty.  There was just the right amount of buffalo milk yoghurt smeared over the plate to mix in the grilled vegetables.  There also appeared to be some pickled carrot on the plate, which added some extra zing to the dish.

The third dish was a mixed bag for me with the ocean trout, hickory smoked with fennel, beetroot, witlof and pink peppercorn dust, just not hitting all the right notes.  Even though the trout was well smoked, I found it to be a little too dry and there was really not a lot of trout on the plate.  I also found the ingredients on the plate to be a little disconnected from each other, with the beetroot looking just a little out of place.  I don't think the dish was terrible, but it was one that was far from memorable.

Aria is very well known for its consommé both here and in Sydney so the duck consommé with miso cured duck, Moreton Bay bug and snow peas promised at being a superb dish.  There was a bit of theatre with the presentation of the dish, with the extremely well clarified broth being poured onto the ingredients at the table.  The cured duck was thinly cut and was packed with flavour that worked really well with the broth.  The moreton bay bug was also nice, but perhaps a little out of place with the cured duck...  I did like the textures of the dish and the flavour was excellent, it was perhaps my favourite dish of the night.

I have had pork belly at Aria on so many occasions I have lost count and I have always loved the presentation and quality of the protein, which is why I was so concerned when the next dish was presented.  The twice cooked sweet pork belly with green tomato, jalapeño and celery salad was a shadow of any pork dish I have ever seen at Aria.  It was not very refined looking and the pork itself was very over cooked and extremely tough.  The plate was a mess with the ingredients seemingly placed down to make the plate look as unattractive as possible.  There was only one redeeming factor on the plate, which was the homemade tomato sauce that was piled next to the pork belly, it was wonderful and full of rich tomato flavour.  It was certainly not enough to rescue the dish.  I was extremely disappointed with this version of Aria's pork belly.

If I was disappointed with the pork belly, I moved to despondent after the lamb -  twice cooked shoulder with smoked eggplant purée and nettles was placed in front of me.  I was in fact dumbfounded and for a moment thought I was in a cheap gastro pub somewhere.  My lamb shoulder was just a huge hunk of meat that had not been trimmed of the fat and was seriously dry.  I looked around the table and noticed that my lamb was much less refined looking that the rest of the table and no one else had a big vein of fat on their lamb.  After I scraped off the fat, which was significant in size and started to eat the lamb, I struggled to connect the flavours on the plate with the usually sweet and tender meat.  I was at the time and remain staggered that this dish would get through the pass and be delivered to a customer.

After the last of the savoury dishes was cleared we received a little palate cleanser which was a little bowl of watermelon granita and a coconut ball.  I actually appreciated the palate cleanser after the lamb dish and really needed it to wash away the disappointment of the pork and lamb.  The granita was sweet and refreshing and the coconut ball was light and fluffy and mixed well with the ice cold treat.

Last of the courses was the dessert of citrus -  mandarin and blood orange salad, candied fennel, poppy seed tuile with blood orange sorbet.  The dessert looked beautiful and was back to the quality of dish that I know Aria usually produces in its sleep.  The dehydrated mandarin gave some lovely crunch to the plate and the blood orange sorbet was sweet and tart at the same time.  Best of all was the poppy seed tuile, which I used to scoop up the orange puree on the plate.  I did find the texture of the candied fennel a little weird, but it did not detract from the freshness of the dessert, which I polished off in record time. 

This was the first time I had ever been to Aria and not enjoyed the meal, in fact it was the first time I had been where the meal was sub par and riddled with errors.  Those of us who had the standard tasting menu all agreed that the meal was hit and miss, with the emphasis on miss.  Having said that, the vegetarians at the table could not have been happier with their meal and had raved about each course as it came out.  I will admit that the vegetarian tasting menu looked to be much nicer than the tasting menu but I have to question the value of a vegetarian tasting menu that costs the same as the standard.

I have to assume that the tasting menu on the night was an aberration and not the normal quality of the regular menu at Aria.  Most of the dishes were nice, but you definitely want more than nice when you are going to a special occasion restaurant and getting what should be the showcase menu.  There were a couple of the dishes that were downright terrible and should not have been presented to us, namely the pork and the lamb plates.  I think I missed out by not ordering the vegetarian tasting menu as it looked sensational. 

While the food didn't hit the normal highs of Aria, there was nothing wrong with the service, which was first rate.  The staff were friendly and put up very well with our shenanigans, in particular CM who paired the matching wines with each of the courses and was a little verbose by the end of the night. 

If this had been my first visit to Aria I would have been devastated.  It's the type of restaurant that has a fantastic reputation for a reason, which is producing the best food using the best ingredients.  I'm not sure what happened on the night or what went on in the kitchen, but I would be sure owner Matt Moran would not have let some of these dishes out from the pass.  I often wonder what happens when a chef has multiple restaurants and the quality starts to dip when he's not about?  I guess I might find out over the next few months.

Salad with apple, celery and walnuts with a blue cheese dressing looked wonderful and the MS and SG raved about the quality.  They were just rubbing our faces in it.
The best looking dish of the night was the king brown mushroom with pickles quince, leeks and chestnut puree.  The vegos win another round with this plate
Jerusalem artichoke with apple and hazelnut salad was simple and elegant, another win to the vegos
White and green asparagus, ricotta and parmesan dumplings with zucchini and mint makes it a clean sweep for the vegetarian tasting menu
It was not a busy night, which is surprising for a Thursday night in Eagle Street
CM fell into this table on the way out, maybe had a tad too much to drink with the matched wines
Some marshmallow and chocolate to finish off the meal
Of course you can buy the book.  

Aria Brisbane on UrbanspoonARIA Brisbane

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