A hiatus. For once, Sydney’s greatest name in fine dining – according to critics, and Sydney’s greatest food blog – according to me at least*, share something in common. You may have heard the news that Quay Restaurant, under Peter Gilmore (neither name needing introduction) made a gamble to close down the fine diner for three months to undergo the biggest renovation since the last season of The Block. Which is to say it was big, expensive, and fit for prime time TV.
So I checked it out.
*I know, I laughed too
Date Last Visited: 18/Aug/2018
Address: Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks NSW 2000
Highlight Dishes: hand-harvested seafood, malted barley crumpets
Price Guide (approx): $210/$275 (6/10 course menu), $95/$110/$125 (non-alcoholic/wine/alcoholic non-wine pairing)
So how much does it cost to face lift a Sydney icon? Four million, give or take a pineapple or two. With that kind of money, Gilmore could have retired into the sunset, with an endless supply of snow eggs if he knows how to do it right. The spend can be seen the moment one walks up to the restaurant’s freshly-painted, ocean-blue facade, adorned with broken letters Q-U-A-Y. Maybe they ran over budget and so couldn’t afford the rest of the material. Maybe it’s just art.
Pretty much everything inside has also gone under the petty knife: removal of the old, 70s-style disco carpet (I was not a fan), a reduction of 20 seats to 80 where each table has a clearer view of the Harbour Bridge & Opera House, and no more white tablecloths – replaced by naked, responsibly-sourced spotted gum tables. A move saving $360k pa in laundry bills alone!
So about those snow eggs – how many must Quay sell to recoup $4 million? A trick question: it’s no longer on the menu. This is a blow, regardless of whether or not you’ve visited Quay pre-renovation (you’d know how good it is to miss it, or you’ve just missed out – forever).
It is indisputably my favourite aspect of Quay’s cuisine, but this renovation spared no prisoners.
In a city whose food zeitgeist is a clear tread away from fine dining – that is, four-hours of deep vein thrombosis and enough courses to make a goldfish of the best of us – Quay continues to be an exception that proves the rule. In fact, Gilmore doubled down on the dégustation traditionelle, removing a la carte entirely. Less choice, more food: there’s a six-course menu for $210, or $275 for ten courses. To be fair, diners are allowed to choose between one of two mains, and one of two desserts when opting for the ‘lighter’ option.
Wine pairings weigh in at $125 and $175 respectively, with a non-alcoholic pairing also available. To add to the drink pairing options, in what our floor staff noted was a nod to the ‘Millennials that dislike wine’ (oh, this is a trend?) – a ’round of drinks’ which is alcoholic, but free of fermented grape juice. Think beers, certain cocktails and spirits.
As this particular visit was with the folks who tolerated me these 27 odd years (hi, mum & dad!), we went for the six-course option, which meant our door-to-door was a relatively swift 2h 30min. This is what passes for ‘short’ at Quay. Set your calendars and stopwatches accordingly.
Our meal began with a non-course amuse of shiitake & pork crackling tarts, promising a pocket rocket of flavour that failed to live up to its potential: overly salty, and nowhere near enough of a shiitake hit to justify the name. For umami enthusiasts (i.e., everyone), this mattered.
Let’s forget about the tarts and talk about the dish I personally think will become a cult favourite: hand-harvested seafood, exclusively procured for Quay. Eyre Peninsula clams, Coffin Bay baby octopus, Rottnest Island scallop, Northern Territory lotus seeds and QLD palm hearts represent most corners of our vast nation, the ingredients luxuriating in a briny broth of fermented konbu, aged vinegar and whatever the heck ‘virgin’ soy is.
Whatever it was, it was delicious. Eaten with chef’s tweezers (this is as close to ‘cooking’ as I’ll get), the dish’s presentation was evocative of doing our own hand-diving in a rock pool just for us: all the props to Gilmore and his team for crafting an illusion that was so tasty, it was begging to be paired with an ipod enclosed in a conch shell playing the sounds of the sea on endless loop.
Yeah, the comparison went there. It’s that good.
The seafood theme continues, with South Queensland sand crab – perhaps better known as blue swimmer crab, lightly poached in clarified butter and served with Japanese turnip, anchovy-flavoured salt and southern squid.
Would it be remiss of me if I summed up the dish with ‘buttery’? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be far off the mark – and this isn’t a compliment. While the crab and squid were well-cooked, their natural flavours were almost completely subsumed – I just wasn’t able to taste much of anything else.
The acidic, two ways-cooked wakefield cabbage (dehydrated + fried) was an exception: serving as an excellent – and important – foil to the oleaginous seafood. It didn’t save it, but an otherwise hard landing was made just a little softer.
A bread course that could make me forget that Quay doesn’t actually have a bread course is mission impossible; however, this is Gilmore’s Tom Cruise moment: buckwheat, barley & 00 bread flour crumpets, perfected over a month of testing, served with house-spun butter & Braidwood’s Terra Preta truffles. There really aren’t enough good adjectives to describe the taste of a good bread course: chewy, toasty, nutty, full of flavour? And of course: TRUFFLE BUTTER.
The criticism is obviously that there’s not enough of either crumpet or butter. Seconds, please!
By this point in the meal, it’s clear that interactivity is a core theme of the new Quay. Three receptacles, respectively containing Tasmanian sea urchin chawanmushi, a seafood dashi (winter broth), and dried fish maw, salted egg yolk and ikura encourage us to create our own perfect bite.
This is a dish that by all accounts should have been perfect – indeed, the chawanmushi was to-the-textbook silky smooth, the consomme clear & redolent with umami, with crunchy fish maw to finish it all off.
But the uni? Even now it’s still hard for me to believe: it was almost inedible.
Its flavour was on the wrong side of ‘ocean raw’. It was far too funky, perhaps even off; it was pungent & overwhelming, not sweet like it should be – the entire table received the same rank specimens.
I have no idea what happened – I just know that I can’t see myself going back while this remains on the menu.
Things picked up with the mains. Maremma duck, cooked to a faultless medium in a master stock was so delicious, I might just have channelled my inner George Calombaris, banging the table a la Masterchef style. Accompanying the duck was a medley of the sweetest slow-cooked carrots, red dates and pig face succulents. All this made for a dish that was practically a savoury, unctuous dessert – in the best possible way.
The other choice for main was a smoked pig jowl (confit’d in its own consomme) with chewy, fan shell razor clams and a sea cucumber crackling. It was an unusual combination, to be sure: subtle, salty-sweet razor clams paired with pork that was practically 80% fat didn’t make for the most harmonious of pairings. Of course, the unctuousness of the jowl itself would already be fairly off-putting, so be absolutely sure that you’re into fat in going down this path. To its credit: the pork itself was delicious and very flavourful – there will be no talk of flavourless pork.
As for the sea cucumber crackling? Take care: your gums are fair game.
And here we have it: white coral, the dessert succeeding the snow egg. The coral is an aerated & freeze-dried white chocolate ganache, seated on top of a quenelle of feijoa ice cream and coconut cream. Is it beautiful? I personally don’t think so – it looks like a white glob of freezer scrapings. It may as well be post-modern art to others. But the taste?
The problem when reinventing a dish that has become a national (and even international) icon is that the successor has to be twice as good as the incumbent for them to be considered equal. When was the last time life was fair?
The technical bits: the ice cream was too hard, and the feijoa flavour absolutely needed further accentuation. But the coral itself was amazing – surreal, sublime, I really did understand his vision here. While the dish isn’t there yet, I take the view that it’s simply yet to realise its potential – yes, to match the snow egg. Why be a pessimist? After all, Gilmore’s made his bed (of coral), and so he, along with us, now must make the most of it.
The other choice of dessert is an unassuming crystalised oloroso caramel w/prune cream & jam. Okay, unassuming is being generous: this is lazy plating at its finest. It doesn’t matter if the intent is to be modest, to impress with flavour instead of presentation – if that were so, Gilmore wouldn’t have spent months figuring out how to aerate white chocolate into the semblance of coral.
It was actually very delicious – the caramel was right on the teetering edge, the prune flavour was outstanding and the dessert as a whole was arguably as good as the white coral.
But when you pay $210, $275, for an experience in one of the prettiest restaurants in Sydney you expect beauty as well as flavour: a pile of brown dirt absolutely fails on the first.
The meal finished off with a set of salted caramel canelés…
…and creme fraiche & honey tarts. The former, good; the latter, impressive – good tart base, creamy texture and just the right amount of natural honey.
And so the meal finishes…
…well, not before something of a parting gift.
In Sydney, there is no restaurant more polarising than Quay: it’s the darling of critics, yet the punching bag of almost every ‘real life’ person who I’ve spoken to/whose reviews I’ve read. It’s just not that impressive. But, like a sheep who’s self-aware, I keep going back, thinking it would be different, thinking I would see the light.
Yes, I do like it better than the old Quay. Yes, the food is more evolved, more thoughtful, and succeeds in its mission of crafting an interactive experience where Australian produce is showcased at the highest level. But when a $200+ meal is summarised on average as ‘good, not great’, when Gilmore’s very own Bennelong Restaurant is in the eyes of many – yours truly included – still the ‘better restaurant’, it does make one think this of Sydney’s brightest dining icon:
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Quay Restaurant
- Quay’s new layout is well thought out and aesthetically appealing
- The food has evolved for the better – for the most part
- The service is flawless – there is a server for roughly every 8 guests
- Critics say we’ve moved on from the snow egg; I guess the ‘we’ is self-referential
- It’s hard reconciling the hype with the reality
Would I return: yes, after a menu change
F6.5 | S4 | A2.5