Aria – Harbour Alfresco
I first went to Aria several years back before I found out what the word “degustation” meant. My taste buds weren’t exactly of “prime quality” then (geez it’s like describing a cut of steak…), and I probably wrote Aria off as a rip-off considering what it offered. Then again, I had that opinion of degustations in general.
Well, that’s before I became a foodie.
I decided to take the parents to Aria in order to celebrate Father’s Day. Parents almost never, ever eat out so for them, this may as well be a completely new and foreign experience. I myself was looking forward to it quite a bit; I was interested to see how I would feel about Aria after such a long period of having not gone.
Even now, one can’t ever really make the argument that degustations are “worth the money” but depending on how you argue it, you can’t really claim the contrary either. After all, value is in the eye of the beholder. Nowadays, for me, degustations provide a level of quality and variety that is not easily replicated by “lesser” restaurants. More importantly, degustations are meant to showcase a restaurant’s best (think signature) dishes. Couple that alongside the fact that there are usually up to 10 and more courses (each of them small so you don’t get bloated) and you get a recipe (oops) for sampling the best a restaurant has to offer, whilst keeping to a level of variety you usually can’t match via the normal À la carte route.
This, is why degustations are expensive. To most of you, they will never be worth the money. Of course, if it doesn’t impress, it wouldn’t be worth it for me too. How does Aria fare? Read on to find out…
Restaurant: Aria Restaurant
Number of Visits: 2
Date Visited: TBC
Address: 1 Macquarie Street, Sydney NSW 2000
Specialisation: fusion with a distinct Asian & French influence
Good for: anniversaries, superb alfresco dining, important/celebratory (but formal) occasions
Not good for: your regular lunch break, people with a budget (aka sane people)
Go-to dish: Kurobota Pork Belly
I don’t usually mention the view a restaurant has but Aria deserves a mention for overlooking almost the entirety of Sydney Harbour – Opera House, Wharf and Bridge all included! It manages this view by being at the tip of Macquarie Street. If views matter to you (honestly, they don’t really to me), the view here is hard to top (Quay does top it though). Thus, alfresco dining becomes a feature of this restaurant.
The degustation we ordered came in at $176 per person – it’s usually $160 but going on a Sunday incurs a 10% surcharge. Boooooo. Not sure what was going through my head when I booked for Sunday…oh well I don’t slam restaurants for this – chefs need a holiday too. Besides…who goes on a dinner on a Sunday night…right yep I do.
Before I get into the food, I should address an important point – Aria’s had a lot of criticism leveled at it and it seems to be more than the standard fare for fine dining restaurants. I’ve heard more than three personal accounts of how the service there was shotty or condescending, how the waiters were rude, and so forth. Now I don’t usually take service into account of a review unless it’s exceptionally bad (e.g. if the service at a place is “meh” I won’t comment on it since I’m not expecting the world) or exceptionally good. I do have higher standards for service from fine dining places – I am shelling out 3 digits after all. Still, I’m pretty lenient and nonchalant when it comes to these things. It’s a far greater offence if the food is not up to par.
Thus I should say YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary. I’ve never had a bad service experience with Aria. The waiter we were assigned this time was quite polite and didn’t really talk too much – sure, he offered bread a lot but that ain’t a bad thing. Like all things, this just depends on your own experience on the night you choose to dine there. Oh well, no problematic comments from me.
Time for the good stuff.
Palate Starter – A sweet potato soup garnished with fluffy cream and crisped onion
This was quite delicious! I like sweet potato in general, and it was pretty interesting in how they made it into a mostly salty – but somewhat still sweet creamy soup. Though the portion was small, think of putting your two hands around a hot cuppa of your favourite thick soup – this soup tastes kind of like that. Quite hearty and flavoursome. I wished there was much more of it.
The cream didn’t really add much to it, though the onions provided a nice counterbalancing texture. Plus I love the crunch of fried onion almost anywhere!
Salmon – king salmon pastrami with crisp rye bread and pickled vegetables
First of all, one has to realise that this isn’t sashimi. Sashimi is served completely raw and free of seasoning – and it is your choice to dip it into the soy sauce (which is /usually/ the only condiment bar wasabi). Salmon Tartare is a different story – you’re going to be hit with the flavour.
I can’t quite put my finger on what they put in it, but I couldn’t really isolate individual flavours within the otherwise well prepared salmon. The texture was great and expected of degustation-class raw fish, but whatever they smoked it with – I couldn’t really identify with. So you could say it was…uneventful?
Commendations on pairing it with some crunchiness in the form of the pickled radishes. These weren’t too sour and I felt like I could eat a jar of them without feeling sick. Good stuff.
Oh as for that rye bread – that was HARD. It’s like a really hard grain wave except nuttier. Up to you to decide if that’s your thing or not. I personally did not mind. Used it to scoop up the mustard sauce
Snapper – seared fillet of pink snapper “bouillabaisse” and basil pesto
Bouillabaisse is a type of fish stew that originated in France. In this dish, it was essentially thickened and turned into a sauce which you can see sits under the fish.
The snapper is seared well – crispy yet not too crunchy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside. It’s not quite perfect – I had difficulty taking in equal portions of both the skin and the white meat underneath as the skin tends to resist the force of the knife. Made for a slightly messy (by fine dining standards) eat.
Oh and that boiled potato (yes that’s what the yellow thing is)? It’s a potato. Nothing to write home about – flavourless on its own, not so bad in the bouillabaisse.
Pheasant – ballotine of pheasant, pistachio, foie gras and capicola with chicken liver parfait
Now this is a RICH, RICH dish. I love rich dishes and when I saw this being plated I kinda suspected I would love the daylights out of it. Yes, there is clear bias here, but I’d almost always rather prefer my food to be rich in flavour than to be so subtle with its flavours that I don’t really taste anything impressive (cf first course).
Ballotine is just a fancy word for a protein (so meat) that’s been stuffed into a roll. So it essentially looks like a cut out sausage – that would be the cylindrical thing you see.
To cut to the chase, I really liked the ballotine. The outer layers of what I believe is some type of pancetta cut away with moderate ease to make for knife-sized portions (what does that even mean). The flavours are intensely savoury and dense. Every little tussle of the pheasant will make a mark in your mouth and leave you craving for another bite – but one that isn’t too big. This is one of those dishes you actually need to take some time to savour. There was almost no texture due to the foie gras, but this dish doesn’t rely on texture to impress. It relies on its flavour and it delivers that in spades.
The duck liver parfait (wow I know right) is a nice tack-on: one bites through it cleanely and it has a cool and light taste after the flavour-coaster that was the ballotine. Be sure to dip it into the pear jus for some nice sweet ‘n’ savoury complementing.
As for the crispy rye bread ladled with pistachios…well…It’s pretty good, but quite hard. And it does serve to provide something with a hard texture, if nothing else.
Peking Duck consomme – with dumplings, shaved abalone and mushrooms
This is meant to be a signature dish, but I wasn’t really impressed all that much. It’s essentially a somewhat salty soup with hints of soy. It’s well flavoured, but the flavour isn’t particularly complex – at least it didn’t taste that way. The dumplings (which contain the duck) are great wontons (that’s pretty much what it is) but the other ingredients feel like they were just chucked into the soup. Too many mushrooms, not enough abalone.
But still, a great soup (let’s just call it soup guys, no need for fancy words like “consomme”), just not uh…’signature’.
Pork belly – Kurobuta pork belly with a pork croquette, muntries and star anise
For me, this was the best dish of the night and quite possibly the restaurant as well. I eat mostly healthy food as you know, but I would throw all that out the window for pork belly cooked to this level. As usual, richness of flavour is the theme at work here. In Chinese, pork belly is translated roughly (and literally) into “5-layers great smelling meat”.
By God, I can’t remember I’ve had such good pork belly in Sydney. The top was cripsed to perfection, the following layer of fat just falls apart in your mouth and makes you feel so guilty but oh does it taste so good. The lean portion is tender and not at all stringy – you should not have to use a toothpick later! And all together it just comes down like an incredible meat sandwich. Pork – such a versatile meat isn’t it?
The croquette was almost an afterthought but that’s not to say it’s bad. It’s a wonderful croquette, and you should probably eat it with the sauce dabbed onto it. Its texture is wonderfully different to the pork belly and very fluffy as you’d expect. There’s your carb
If you’re really health conscious you could probably do without eating the crispy skin, but I did anyway. I didn’t want to waste any part of this dish.
One last thing – those muntries. Muntries (or “emu apples”) grow along Australia’s south coast and have a sweet and nutty flavour to them. They actually worked with this dish even though I can’t quite figure out why. Oh well, gobble up!
Lamb – roasted fillet of lamb with dukkah (duqqa), harissa, eggplant and romesco sauce
Dukkah is essentially a sauce made from herbs and spices with an Egyption origin. Harissa is just a hot chilli sauce. Romesco – just another type of nut-based sauce. Okay, definitions done. Wait, “what’s an eggplant” I hear you ask? Yeah no don’t.
The lamb is one of the less impressive dishes of the course. I felt the lamb was undercooked somewhat and no, this isn’t just my bias towards more well-done meat. It was insanely hard to cut apart – the muscle fibers haven’t fully reacted to the cooking process yet. The fillet maintained consistency throughout, but unfortunately since it’s that type didn’t play so well. In the end, I had to just eat it in two bites. Luckily, wasn’t that big. As for the flavour, it was seasoned perhaps a bit less than I’d have liked – and my taste buds were super high after that pork belly so…maybe place this dish earlier?
Nothing else about the dish really stands out here – except that the eggplant is quite creamy. That was nice.
Pre-dessert palate cleanser. From bottom to top – panacotta, mango sorbet, and some sort of cream at the top
This was surprisingly good! It was the sorbet that really did it. The panacotta in this one is surpassed by the one in the true dessert (why did they double up anyway?) The pink cream at the top felt just like eating sugar. The sorbet next time, please.
Dessert – coconut panacotta, pineapple, macadamia nuts, blueberries and a mandarin sorbet
It isn’t a spectacular dessert, it is quite nice though. The panacotta tasted on par with what I expect from panacotta – creamy, pudding-like and not too sugary. The pineapple were essentially just bits of pineapple. But props for processing them so that they aren’t really sour. The macadamia nuts were roasted which is a really good way of cooking them and I love that crunch and the toasted taste. Mandarin sorbet – a great sorbet! I’ve no complaints here.
Pettit Fours – dark chocolate balls, honeycomb crisps and mini lamingtons
So I didn’t expect this, but always nice to have a post-dessert dessert
The choc balls were dusted finely with cocoa dust and tasted as rich as one expects chocolate of this type to taste. The crisps – kind of hard to get off your teeth and were VERY oily, not so great (but you can’t complain about the sweetness!). The lamingtons were not so memorable – I’ve more or less forgotten what they tasted like…
And that is Aria for you gentleman. In the end, you gotta go and try it for yourself. Oh and, hopefully you don’t get the shotty service. Just be lucky, like me (yep it’s that easy ).
I give Aria a grand total of eight Caesars out of ten – 8/10