Stalwart (n) – a loyal, reliable, and hard-working supporter/participant in an organization or team. If there was ever a shoehorn restaurant fitting this definition in Sydney’s dynamic fine dining landscape, it would absolutely, unequivocally, be Neil Perry’s Rockpool. Established in 1989, it has the incredible honour of being the longest-running fine dining restaurant in Sydney. As far as the high-end goes, Rockpool is immutable.
But now, times are a changing – Rockpool closes its figurative doors, re-opening under its new mantle Eleven Bridge. The biggest question then – same same, or different?
Date Last Visited: 26/08/2016
Address: 11 Bridge Street, Sydney NSW 2000
Go-to Dish: Whole partridge steamed in bread w/glazed turnip
Price Guide (approx): $40 entrees, $50-$70 mains, $25 dessert
Confession time – I never really thought of Rockpool as one of the best restaurants in Sydney. Certainly, it was “up there”, but it was never a go-to for any occasion in particular. I was always able to recommend some other restaurant for any given circumstance. A special occasion – Sepia. Dining with a view? You could try Quay, or Bennelong. Delicious but finessed? There’s Automata for that.
While my visits to Rockpool have never been disappointing per se, they were never truly exemplary either. I gave it three visits – for both lunch and dinner, so I can’t be faulted for a “one-off”. It just never quite clicked – the service always left something to be desired, and the food always just a little off for my palate.
Enter Eleven Bridge. Firstly – why the name change? Well, a matter of confusion – mention Rockpool and people will either direct you to the three-hatter, fine dining digs on Bridge St or the two-hatted, slightly more casual Rockpool Bar & Grill on Hunter St. Imagine how confusing this got – especially for travellers. It was time for a rename, so went Neil Perry’s train of thought. And hey, while you’re at it, why not shake up the restaurant’s modus operandi as well? The answer lies not so much in the decor (which is pretty much exactly the same), nor the food (though there are certainly changes here).
Instead, it’s in the service and menu structure. We’re talking service that achieves a level of balance between genteel, affable and cordial. Several dishes are now prepared tableside via gueridons, something Rockpool never did. It’s a new level of familiarity, and far less stiff. And yeah, I dig it.
However, dear reader, if you thought Eleven Bridge was to represent a new level of price accessibility, think again. Sure, because you are now restricted to an a la carte-only menu (no degs anymore!), you could get away with paying less than the former restaurant’s $180 degustation, but a 3-course here will still run you around $130. Throw in a drink or two, and you’re back at Rockpool again.
But for the first time since visiting “Rockpool”, I felt that this was a price I was willing to pay. Indeed, I put my money where my mouth was – two visits in the same week. That was accidental, but no regrets were had. Let’s dig in.
As sure as the sun rising daily in the east, bread is provided to see off our stomachs. At Rockpool-err-I mean Eleven Bridge, it was the same bread as it’s always been: the excellent honey & spelt bread, served with fresh ricotta & konbu liquorice butter. It’s got a dense, richly satisfying texture that pairs really well with the honey. The crust was certainly tough, but once again, in that kind of chewy, gratifying way, as if I was getting a lot of bread for my money. It’s only right that this bread hasn’t changed since the Rockpool era.
Unfortunately, the fresh ricotta has seen better days – it used to be served with a tomato reduction which lent a tangy acidity that really brought out life in the cheese. My experience of it at Eleven Bridge was very plain. So plain in fact, that we remarked that it tasted like unseasoned tofu. The resemblance was uncanny!
With that said, the introduction of konbu butter easily makes up for it – this officially qualifies as one of the best butters in Sydney. Right up there with Tetsuya’s truffle butter and Automata’s whipped chicken-infused butter. It is more or less literally the definition of umami – intensely savoury and meaty, the butter itself light and airy, it’s easily up there with some of the best fat you could eat. By the way, if you’re not a fan of liquorice fret not – it’s faint.
Dieticians are going to have a field day with this one.
Nibbles of crunchy nori crisps with meaty spanner crab mayo, as is usually the case with great morsels, left me with the feeling of – you guessed it – wanting more. Seaweed crackers and creamy crab? That’s what they call a “no-brainer”, right?
Right out of the gate, I’m just going to tell you that this is probably the best dish on the menu, and it isn’t even an entree, let alone a main or dessert. Oh bar snacks, how you could do no wrong. Say hello to one of the best renditions of fried chicken I’ve had in recent times – Eleven Bridge’s fried chicken wing w/konbu butter.
It’s about as luxuriant in richness and intensity as you could imagine – this is a lollipop of chicken that is guaranteed to pack a mighty punch. The flesh was juicily tender almost to a fault – as only wing flesh could be, and the flavour was – and I don’t use this phrase often – out of this world. ‘Twas profound. Now, I could argue that it was quite rich and oily, but that’s besides the point when a second set is on its way:
Another optional starter item are scallops w/XO chilli jam. These could be ordered either raw or cooked. They offer a more tame and refreshing way – versus the chicken – to start off the meal, if that’s your game. Soft and juicy, the scallops are damn fine. I’m a bit disappointed that the XO chilli jam had more heat than flavour, which was a bit off-kilter for me.
One of the more interestingly-plated entrees is the king prawn mousse w/pangrattato & squid ink butter. A friend referred to this dish as a “Chiko roll”, an Aussie icon dish that I’m sure wasn’t lost on Neil Perry – perhaps he was going for the look, as well as the parody, all along. Pangrattato is, after all, just a fancy word for bread crumbs!
The sausage-like main element of the dish is the king prawn mousse, though it didn’t really taste like its namesake. The prawn taste was very subtle, with a texture that’s not too dissimilar to spam. The comparison sounds crass, but is fairly accurate. A rich yellow prawn sauce is revealed once you cut into the centre of it. Overall, fairly savoury in flavour, though if that wasn’t enough, the intense, almost molasses-like squid ink butter serves to amp it up a notch. There was a particular bitterness to it that was intensely familiar, yet I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nevertheless, I had to stop myself short of licking the plate. The final touch – fancy bread crumbs – did their job well in adding that bit of otherwise missing crunch. A solid pick, for those into a heavier entree.
A dish that was lifted, with little modification, from Rockpool’s old menu is the hiramasa kingfish sashimi w/sushi rice. To me, this is essentially chirashizushi – deconstructed sushi in a plate/bowl. It’s a much cleaner dish, with all the expected elements in place – fresh kingfish, well-cooked rice, and crunchy vegetable components. You’d think there was absolutely nothing to complain about. You’d be right – save one thing.
That mirin dressing. Holy moly, if there was such a thing as too much alcohol (haha), this is it. Mirin, is basically a low-alcohol, higher-in-sugar variant of sake that’s used exclusively for cooking. There was way too much of it in this dish, and the results were overpowering. Given how OTT the mirin’s strength was, I imagine that the chefs deliberately chose to serve it this way. Not my kind of dish.
Of the entrees I’ve tried at Eleven Bridge, the hand-rolled strozzapreti & Moreton Bay Bug is my favourite…and the most expensive (sigh). But that premium is 100% worth it. The pasta is perfect – al dente, fully flavoured with creamily sweet crustacean butter. Of course, the crustacean itself is top notch also – charred in all the right places, there was a smoky pleasantness that was a treat for the senses. The fleshier bits of the bug remain pristine, and of course, pair fully with that sweet, sweet fat. I mean really, it’s the butter that does it – if I had bread at this point, I’d be wiping the plate clean with it.
I like to try new things – but I think there’s a good chance that my choice of entree will be fixed for all future visits to Eleven Bridge.
For those with a hankering for something with a bit of a Korean touch, the scampi crepe is your pancake. It’s all down to the (not too) pungent kimchi and chilli oil. It was actually surprisingly spicy, given the clientele of the restaurant. I would expect chilli newbies to find the heat to be a bit too much. Oh, so Korean.
As for the rest of the dish: pickled mushrooms made a tart, juicy impact, and the scampi itself was of course, cooked perfectly, as per Neil Perry standards. In fact, there was not a single piece of seafood that was texturally unsound across both visit. It was just that consistent.
My only real criticism is that the crepe is a bit thick, doughy, and oily for me. A lighter, thinner crepe would have made for a better lead into mains. Speaking of mains…
How about some lobster? The single most expensive course on the menu, this is about 200g of lobster meat that was fetching $125 as of my latest visit. Nobody actually had this to themselves – it was amongst three which, funnily enough, turned each plate into a portion that was almost exactly entree-sized (and priced!).
The lobster makes use of the gueridon, where it’s cut up and served at our table. The meat is transferred over to prepared plates of lobster head congee, which had almond tofu, chilli oil, breadcrumbs, and a piece of “fried dough twist” that in China, is known as 麻花 (ma hua).
The congee is very, very Asiatic in flavour profile. Lots of soy, preserved vegetable and chilli oil notes. There’s a lot of crunch, mush, and unctuousness. It’s really right up my alley, that’s for sure. As for the 麻花, it tastes on point – tough at first, but yielding to crumbliness after the first few bites, whilst being subtly sweet.
While the dish was decent, I wouldn’t order it again – the lobster, while texturally as sterling as all the other seafood at Eleven Bridge, was not infused with the flavour – not of the congee, or anything. Thus, it was tasteless taken on its own. I knew that eating it with the congee would be the right thing to do, but it’s just not the same than if the lobster carried its own. As such, the dish was a case of “missing something”.
But hey, if you’ve got the cash to burn, it’s certainly worth the try – especially if you’re splitting it!
Another trolley-service main, the above photo marks the commencement of a carving ritual. Specifically, that of the whole partridge steamed in bread. And yes, it’s very literal:
When the knives first pried open the cocoon of bread, a burst of steam rushed to escape – along with it, an amazing odour of savoury spices. I was slightly doubtful when I made the choice to have the partridge as my main, but when I witnessed (and breathed in) that scene, I knew I was in for a treat.
It may not look like much, but this is undoubtedly Eleven Bridge’s best main. First up, I got to keep the bread casing – which soaked up all of the meat juices released in the cooking process. You can just imagine how good that would taste. I’ll spoil it for you: amazing. It’s actually quite similar to deep fried meat buns you could find in China, with a crunchy, oily exterior that’s soft and chewy within. It’s half a meal all by itself.
And then there’s the bird – so good, so soft, so full of flavour. The last time I tasted a bird with this much flavour was simply far too long ago. This partridge was up there – it truly is incredible how much pure tastiness they’ve managed to stuff in there.
The rest of the plate consisted of starchy glazed turnips, and a broth of miso, hazelnut & orange dashi. The former was, to me, token vegetables (not a criticism – starchy goodness!), while the miso dashi helped to accentuate the flavours of the bird. Like that was necessary haha…
I think this is one of the best bird dishes money can buy in Sydney.
Rockpool has always been known for its steaks, and so having a plate of beef is not exactly going to steer you wrong. Eleven Bridge offers two variants – a Blue Mountains wagyu striploin, at $48 per 100g, or a Cape Grim scotch fillet which is almost half the price at $52/200g.
I don’t have pictures of the latter dish, but I’ve eaten both and they are visually very similar.
Both steaks were cooked very well, at least to the medium-rare specification provided on my visits. The meat was first-rate: tender, juicy, and flavoursome. I actually preferred the less expensive Cape Grim variant – it had more flavour and a greater inherent “beefiness”, notwithstanding the striploin’s slightly superior texture in its tenderness.
When it comes to the actual flavour profile of the dishes as a whole, both steaks were very Japanese. Lots of soy, lime elements, and wasabi. These dishes could have come straight out of a high quality Japanese restaurant and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Yup, Neil Perry is serving Japanese-style steak at Eleven Bridge. That the striploin is already pre-sliced hammers home the point – it’s a run-of-the-mill serving method in a Japanese restaurant.
With this realisation, I came to the conclusion that while the steaks at Eleven Bridge were quite delicious, I could probably get something with “close enough quality” for 2/3 the price. Oh, and when the partridge is on the same menu, these didn’t stand a chance.
When you have $125 lobster on the menu, calling local abalone cooked in brown butter, going at $59 a plate, the “bargain basement” option is not that far of a stretch. Being an infrequent consumer of the mollusc in non-Asian restaurants, curiosity in how Eleven Bridge would handle it was most strong. I’m usually not too fussed on presentation, however this wasn’t the most appetising-looking plate. A pile of black…
…*cough* anyways, the taste is where it’s at, right? On this front, it’s good – the flesh itself was sliced up into strips, allowing it to absorb a good deal of that smoky, burnt butter and rich abalone liver sauce. It was still quite chewy and tough (whether you like this or not), but at least there wasn’t any of that dreaded “oceanic pungency” that often plagues subpar abalone. The salted herb salad on top however, was far too salty – a lose here.
While a decent plate of abalone, it doesn’t stand out amongst Eleven Bridge’s better mains, and is unlikely to win over anyone accustomed to eating abalone Asian-style.
Of all the new dishes that were to be included on Eleven Bridge’s new menu, none were as controversial as the Chinese roast pigeon. This is well and truly a poster child for sticker shock – $72 for a pigeon? Surely that can’t be? Well, it can – and heck, I ordered the damn thing just to put it through its paces.
After tasting it, I’m still not fully convinced that $72 is justified. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the quality of the bird itself. Certainly, it was a great pigeon – the flesh is perfectly cooked and tastes unmistakably like the bird, and didn’t reek too much of “game bird”. The sweet & sour sauce brought out a whole lot of – well – sweet & sour flavours that threatened to teleport me into a Chinese restaurant. It was well-balanced, but I couldn’t find that x-factor – the one thing that made me go “wow, that is worth $72″. The closest I could come to in determining such an element would be the skin of the bird.
See, I’ll definitely give credit for how ridiculously perfect the skin is. Ravishingly crispy, great seasoning, it’s all you could ask for in great skin.
It’s still no $72 bird, but at least I didn’t get a dud!
Onto desserts, and a light one to start – the passionfruit souffle w/passionfruit ice cream. My last post on the French restaurant Guillaume coincidentally also featured a passionfruit souffle as its dessert. While the Frenchman’s rendition was basically the very essence of sour passionfruit in souffle form, Eleven Bridge’s was a lot more restrained with its use of passionfruit flavour. It’s definitely there, but at a much more tame level, that still allowed me to taste the creamy-yet-airy nature of the souffle itself. It’s cooked well all the way through, save for one transition area where it got noticeably denser.
The passionfruit ice cream is unmistakably sourer, and served as the refresher to the cumulative richness of the souffle. If you’re a fan of souffles, you can feel most safe in ordering this.
The most talked-about new dessert on the Eleven Bridge menu is this innocent-looking “fake” cake w/Valrhona chocolate. It’s “fake” in that flour isn’t used. I actually don’t know what they used as a substitute – an open question. Commenters, anyone?
Deception aside, what really impressed me about this cake was how many elements went into it. There’s the cake itself, the rich chocolate drizzle on top, the vanilla cream, tempered Valrhona chocolate (hidden within the cake), a fruity compote-like mix at the bottom, and a chocolate crunch near the back of the slice. There’s a lot going on, yet never seemed too busy – likely because the cake was never too sweet or too rich. I was able to finish the whole thing with no issues, nor repentance.
In the end, despite the deliciousness of this cake, my heart was elsewhere – I had a date with a tart!
Yes, the famous Rockpool date tart – an original recipe dating back to 1989. It has not been altered at all in that time, and there is absolutely no reason to. One thing has changed under Eleven Bridge: you can actually order a full slice of this thing now, whereas they only came as petit fours at Rockpool.
The x-factor about this tart is how every component magically melts in your mouth into a unified, faultless whole. The tart base holds the tart intact, yet remains buttery and friable. Another layer is the most silky smooth & luscious vanilla bean custard. In between are candied sweet dates and then at the very top is a bittersweet tart crust that joins seamlessly with the base.
It’s hard to describe something that’s ostensibly so simple and ubiquitous. But it is the best date tart you’ll ever have, and likely one of the best tarts you’ll have. Sure, it’s a bit rich, but I didn’t leave even one crumb on the plate.
If that wasn’t enough sweetness, you get treated to petit fours at the end. Starting from the bottom going clockwise:
Rockpool Wagon wheel – basically a fancy Choco pie – crumbly, a bit of gooeyness, and not too strong on the chocolate.
Matcha marshmallow – pretty much no matcha flavour. Thus, a plain marshmallow pretending to be something more.
Yuzu & white choc bon bons – a smooth, massive hit of yuzu custard hit that’s encased by white chocolate. The chocolate foiled the custard quite well.
Choux pastry w/caramel dulce de leche – this is an excellent choux – light, thin, and carried an air of crunchiness. The cream inside was very light as well, as befitting the choux. The slice of caramel dulce on top tasted like…well…salted caramel – albeit one that melts effortlessly in the mouth.
Rockpool 1989 is gone, and it’s not coming back. However, everything that changed was done in the name of improving the dining experience in subtle ways, with significant results. The team at Eleven Bridge have mostly achieved this goal. The service is more approachable, pricing is a “little bit” more sensible (or at least, flexible), and the food is tastier than I ever remembered it to be. And hey, having a full-sized date tart as a dessert option is as far as I’m concerned, worth the name change/rebrand alone.
I’ll be back. Again.
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Eleven Bridge.
Have you been yet, dear reader? Or are you looking for an excuse to go? Let me know in the comments below!
- Rockpool has grown up and evolved with the times.
- Some of the best bird dishes in town.
- Chicken wings and date tarts could make a meal in and of themselves.
- When flavours are occasionally just a little bit too Asian & rich (overly seasoned)…
- It’s a heavy meal – you don’t walk out of Eleven Bridge feeling pleasantly satisfied. You walk out feeling absolutely stuffed.
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S4 | A3