Saturday, 29 November 2014

Sydney Series - Rockpool

Neil Perry is one of Australia's most recognisable chefs and restauranteurs.  With his TV shows and chain of multi award winning restaurants, it's clear that Neil is one of the rock stars of the culinary world.  I've been to a number of restaurants in the Neil Perry stable, including both the Sydney and Melbourne Rockpool Bar and Grills (see post here) as well as the very cool Spice Temple in Sydney (see post here).  The one restaurant that I've been dying to check out was the original, Rockpool Sydney.

I was in Sydney recently for a flying-stop-over, flying down to attend the taping of the SBS program, Insight (yep, as a guest), staying overnight and then flying back to work the next morning.  I was pretty excited to have been invited by Insight to speak as an expert in my Industry and I'm pretty sure I will get a bit of air time (will find out in February).  Anyway, I digress.  With one night in Sydney, I had to choose between Quay, Sepia and Rockpool as my destination. Quay was booked out, Sepia didn't answer their phone and Rockpool had a spot - phew!

I've been to Sydney a heap of times and walked by Rockpool often, but if I was hoping to get along to the original George Street location at the Rocks, I was to be disappointed.  Rockpool had moved recently into larger digs, so it was the new Bridge Street location that I set out to find (well, I gave the taxi driver the address - good enough!).  Dropped off across the street from the new digs, I could see that Rockpool was in a cool old sandstone building with the only features identifying the new restaurant being a couple of plaques with Rockpool engraved in simple script.

Walking into Rockpool, I was greeted by a beautifully presented waitress who confirmed my table and then led me through the dimly lit space, that reeked of refinement, to my table for one.  It was a pretty good seat that afforded me not only a great view of the restaurant and the kitchen, but a spot to do a little people watching while I ate my dinner.  I also noticed the smooth and practiced care that the well trained staff ran through their routines of meeting, greeting, wining and dining the Rockpool customers.  It was smooth... 

After sitting down, I was given the drinks menus - both wine and cocktail, then left to my own devices for a few minutes to peruse and decide on a drink. Unusually, I decided that I'd have a cocktail and looking for something easy to drink, settled on the Pink Apple.  The Ketel One with Crème de Cassis, spiced syrup, apple and raspberry, was quite smooth and went down rather nicely.  

Next, I was given a rundown on the menu, which was a degustation only option of nine or ten courses.  I'd decided pretty quickly that it would be the full ten courses for $165, I thought why not, its not likely I'd be back anytime soon. The menu was crafted by Neil Perry and Head Chef Phil Wood, who at 31 has been described by Neil as one of the best young chefs in the country.  With a background that includes time at Thomas Keller's world renowned French Laundry, it's not surprising that Rockpool currently sits at #2 on the Gourmet Traveller top 100 restaurants list as well as having three Chefs Hats.  

I was keen to see if the Rockpool reputation was warranted.

First out were two dainty looking little dishes.  On an ocean blue plate that rippled in the light was the pork belly with coriander, chilli and rice roll and in a marble bowl was the chicken wing with egg batter konbu butter.  I was at first taken aback by how small each of the dishes were, in fact, I was confused for a little while thinking that these first two dishes were in fact amuse bouche to kick off with before the meal started!  I found the pork belly roll to be well put together, but it lacked any presence and was a little bland.  I had no such issues with the chicken wing, which was beautifully cooked in a light batter and bathed in the sweet konbu butter.  The taste of that butter sat wonderfully on my palate for some time after eating and it was almost the highlight of the meal.

My confusion still reigned once the next course of spanner crab with tabasco mayonnaise and soya bean was presented.  Again, it was a small and dainty looking little dish that was the size of an amuse bouche in a little bowl.  Small enough to be eaten in one bite, the crab was light and subtle with a creamy sauce that had a mild flavour that I would never have picked as tabasco (I'm wondering if there was a change to the composition of the dish from the menu).  It was nice, but it didn't rock my world and it was over so quickly!

It wasn't until my fourth course of chirashi zushi of tuna, kingfish and striped trumpeter that I realised that it wasn't a series of amuse bouche, but the full courses of the degustation!  The wonderfully presented fish came presented in an oyster shell that shone beautifully under my table's lamp.  Each of the components of the dish were fresh and delicious, even though the spiced kimchi was a little overpowering on it's own.  Again, it was a very small dish and I was starting to worry that I'd be walking out of a ten course degustation still hungry.

The trend of small and dainty dishes continued when my next course came out in the smallest bowl I have ever seen!  The whiting with apple, radish and red date infusion was delicious, with expertly cooked whiting that was subtle against the stronger date flavour.  I was actually pretty impressed with the cooking of the whiting, it was so small, and so thin, that only an expert could have cooked it so well.  At the end of the dish, I was starting to think about what else I'd be having to eat when the degustation was complete.

Delivered at the same time as my whiting dish was a cooking apparatus with lots of Japanese text that had a bowl of soy milk.  The milk slowly cooked at my table and became warm tofu that was added to my next dish of sea urchin with avocado and eight precious herbs.  It was a lovely little dish, with the pungent sea urchin calmed by the warm tofu that was liberally placed in the bowl.  I thought the balance of the dish was spot on and it was quite tasty, but again, it was very small.

I didn't catch the full details of the next dish out, which was a nightly special from the kitchen and an additional dish to supplement the degustation.  It was a scallop and white fish terrine with air dried mushroom crumbs and a lovely creamy sauce (it could have had saffron in it).  The terrine was delicious, the scallop flavour shining through, although I found the texture to be a little odd, a little squishy.  I was happy for the dish though as it provided a level of comfort that I might just get enough food for the evening.

I'm a bid dubious of restaurants that have degustations where bread is one of the courses and clearly just there to fill you up.  Rockpool did just this with the honey and spelt bread served with Rockpool butter and fresh ricotta.  It was a large loaf cut into eights and I ate about half of it before the sweetness from the honey became a little overbearing.  I guess the ricotta was there to help balance it out, but since I'm not a huge fan, it was just too sweet.

The way the Rockpool degustation works is that the majority is pre-set with the customer picking their preference of main and dessert from an extended list.  There were some great looking options and after asking my waiter for his recommendation, chose the partridge with chestnut filled lotus root and bone marrow poached quince.  There was a severe dichotomy with the dish, firstly, it looked pretty ordinary when presented.  The partridge looked beige and washed out on the plate and while there was a little theatrics from the smoked breast that topped the plate, the overall effect was brown on brown (and a little icky).  However, the flavours were sensational, the spices on the breast really offset the flavour and the jus on the plate had a depth that was hard to describe.  Yeah, looks a zero on that one but flavour was a ten.

Perhaps my favourite part of the night was the pre dessert of moscato custard with rhubarb, apple, white mulberries and streusel.  The warm custard was sensational, especially with the texture of the streusel and the rhubarb cream - so tasty and creamy.  Yum

Upon the recommendation of my waiter, I chose the vacherin of pandan custard with coconut parfait, jasmine sorbet and lime granita.  It looked very simple presented on the plate but the complexity was on the inside.  Put together in layers that started with the coconut parfait and finishing with the jasmine sorbet, it was freshness personified.  There was a little tartness from the lime granita, balanced out with the sweetness of the parfait and the pandan custard.  It was a great way to finish off the meal, mostly because it was the largest of all of the degustations courses.

I have to say that I'm conflicted about my meal at Rockpool, I had really high expectations, I mean who wouldn't?  Number two in the country with three chefs hats, you're going to expect greatness. But the fact was, I just didn't feel the greatness, sure, there were moments of beautiful food that tantalised the taste buds, but it didn't roll through the whole meal.  I also struggled with the size of the portions, I know degustation rounds are generally small, but the Rockpool portions were amuse bouche sized!  I just didn't see the value in the meal, even though I'm sure there was a lot of work that had gone into each dish.

I couldn't fault the service, the standard was right up with Michelin starred restaurants overseas and was a cut above most restaurants that you get in Australia.  The team were both well drilled but clearly loved working at Rockpool, which always shines through during a dinner service.  I also loved the new location (not that I'd seen the old one), which was almost majestic in its fit-out and feel.  The bathrooms were immaculate and when such care has been taken in fitting out bathrooms, you know that attention to detail is the order of the day.

Look, I can now say that I've done Rockpool, another three hatted restaurant and the country's second best restaurant.....  But I have to say that the food was just a little bit of a let down, for the price and the pedigree, I was expecting more.  The fact is, I've had better meals at the less prestigious Rockpool Bar and Grills around the country.....  

My girly cocktail went down very easily - but I kept it to one!
At first I thought these were amuse bouche - not courses in a dego!
The tofu after being made at my table
Subdued lights, white linen and immaculately dressed wait staff
The new Rockpool dining room was quite special

Rockpool on UrbanspoonRockpool

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review! Love the pictures! What restaurant have you had the best cocktails? Remember to add it to your Besty List!


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