Monday, 17 June 2013

Quay, Sydney - Three Hats and Counting

For those of you who read my tribute to Marc and Cher Thompson of Bistro Lilly yesterday, you would have learned that for many years whilst I lived happily in Sydney, it was in the quiet and secluded harbourside suburb of Millers Point. Bordering The Rocks and only a stones throw from Circular Quay gave me ease of access to not only the restaurants but the bars in this picturesque tourist mecca. When I was part of a "gentlemans club" which is essentially four arseholes (sic) that met up once a month with the intent to go fine dining and talk about important topics like women, the ASX, wine and sport (not in that order) the last venue that we attended was Quay in Circular Quay West before I moved to Brisbane. It had been roughly three years and many chefs hats, a plethora of awards and an abundance of accolades that had been thrust on both the restaurant and Executive Chef Peter Gilmore since I last sat in this restaurant so it was with not only morbid curiosity but a sense of nostalgia that I chose to dine at Quay last week with a client. My sole intention for my day trip to Sydney was to take this particular client out to lunch so he was thrilled to be invited to Quay as it was his first visit and was high on his bucket list. After recently dining at the best that Melbourne has to offer over the last six months I was most interested in comparing and contrasting the overall epicurean experiences and left talk about transformation and other boring topics take a back seat.

Sydney Opera House, outside Quay Restaurant, Sydney
Sydney Opera House - View from outside Quay
As rain pelted down in Melbourne last Wednesday and the inhabitants of the best city in the world shivered with their Collingwood scarves lovingly draped around their necks like a noose, I escaped to the Harbour City and after the fog cleared, Qantas came to my rescue and delivered me at a reasonable hour in the morning after Virgin Australia cancelled my scheduled flight. If it wasn't for Qantas, I would have missed this much anticipated client lunch and would have been charged for not turning up for the scheduled booking at Quay. It turned out to be a mild 22c in Sydney. The sun was shining and all signs were pointing to a relaxed lunch with spectacular views of the harbour on offer.

We were greeted at reception with a smile and taken to our table. Fortunately it was in the area of the restaurant that offers the best view of not only the harbour but also the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the touristy restaurants at Campbell Cove. Drinks orders were taken and I requested a Hendricks Gin & Tonic ($15) which is turning out to be quite a ritual when dining these days whilst we socialised the menus and had small talk about the wonderful Sydney weather. Although an a la carte menu was available, most of the dining options articulated were also part of an eight course degustation menu which we quickly agreed was the best option moving forward. Of course the client knew that I was on the hook to pay so he was happy to agree to anything I would imagine. There were also two options for matching wine, we opted for the more expensive "premium" wine match, so the total degustation with matching premium wines was a reasonable $400/pp. This is on par with the higher end tasting menus available at Jacques Reymond and Attica so I wasn't too surprised by the cost.

Interior Quay Restaurant, Sydney
Inside Quay
It wasn't long until the first course was delivered. It would become my favourite course and set the standard for everything that was served later. Congee of Northern Australian mud crab with fresh palm heart and an egg yolk emulsion. The broth with the added consistency of the emulsion was absolutely amazing and certainly brought out the amazing flavour within the mud crab. Matched with a 2005 Keith Tulloch Semillon from the Hunter Valley, I thought was apt and a wonderful choice that allowed both the food and wine pair without giving an extraordinary amount of emphasis to either one. I seem to be partial to white wine matched with seafood these days so I am not surprised this turned out to be my favourite dish however my interest in the rest of the menu was not only piqued but I was left hungry wanting more. Service was happy to give us refills of wine, not only whilst enjoying this dish but we would find that it was no problem to get "top ups" whilst experiencing the remaining courses.

Salad of albino and chioggia beetroots, preserved wild cherries, goats curd, scorched beet leaves and violets were then matched with a 2010 Revendy 'Terre de Maimbray' Sancerre from France. Revendy is a very small producer but has the most awards for Sancerre, and like the small producer, the theme knocks on to the small yet delicate wild cherries, cold morsels of goats curd and smatterings of leaves, beetroots and edible flowers. This is a very pretty dish and the both the curd and beetroot brought out the flavours inherent in the wine. The dish properly matched with the view of the harbour as an aside. This is one of the few restaurants where you will find that visual stimulation is taken just as seriously as evoking your other senses.

Red claw yabbies with a garlic scented custard and yabby velvet was then matched with a non vintage Gosset Grande Rose from Champagne, France. A rose that was made intentionally as opposed to being thrown together as an aside was a great choice to match with the yabbies as it gave the allure of being a bit sophisticated, but not too sophisticated as not to outclass the yabbies. Yet another visually stunning dish that was full of flavour, further complimented by the choice of wine made this another contender for "favourite" further enhanced by the sommelier being generous with the refills allowing us to take the pain away from discussing business and action items.

I was most intrigued by the next dish as I had never had goose before. Besides calling one of my best mates this waterbird and seeing them chase children in various parks, I have never been offered one to eat. Roasted with "forbidden" rice, a black miso and hatsuka radish, it was matched with a 2010 Bass Phillip 'Estate' Pinot Noir from Gippsland, Victoria. In ancient China,  black rice was considered the finest grain and only served to the Emperor, thus the name "forbidden" rice which was a novel touch to accompany a bird that is not commonly consumed by the masses. A subtle gaminess was enjoyed but the black miso really made this a special and a different taste that defined why you go out to eat - to try new things and I am now hooked on goose. I will never look at my mate the same way again. It was nice to see a wine from Victoria represented in this tasting menu and I can't think of a nicer match. This fruity Pinot Noir really complemented the goose and they both turned into a conversational highlight.

Smoked and confit pig cheek, shiitake, shaved scallops, Jerusalem artichoke leaves, bay and juniper followed with a 2010 Algueira Merenzao from Riberia Sacra, Spain. This is a decadent dish - a fatty dish with an amazing texture. I am so used to eating parts of the pig at Movida however I had never experienced the pleasure of the pig cheek. The scallops and artichoke leaves really added to the mystery of this dish as my palate didn't know what to make of it at first but then when you pair it with the bold Algueira, it made for a complete contrast to the goose and really took you on a trip from Australia to Spain. This was my dining partner's favourite dish and nearly mine.

Pasture raised veal with a bitter chocolate black pudding, green walnuts, slow cooked wallaby tail, salsify, smoked bone marrow and chestnut mushrooms was the final savoury dish matched with a 2010 Luke Lambert 'Reserve' Syrah from our own Yarra Valley. What a cornucopia of tastes that all jostle for position across your palate. The wallaby tail, from a producer in the southern NSW highlands (note: Flinders Island Meats supplied the wallaby and have corrected not only be but advised the restaurant that the server advised me with wrong information) was not so different than any other wallaby offering that I had enjoyed in Melbourne, yet was equally as good. The bone marrow was rich and along with the veal and pudding, the mix of tastes and texture were very intriguing and bold - along with the big and beautiful Syrah, this was a perfect winter warmer as the sun shined on my back.

Andalucia citris and almonds along with a 2011 Joh.Jos. Prum 'Wehlener Sonnenuhr' Auslese Riesling from Mosel, Germany essentially acted as a palate cleaners and first sweet course and was followed by a Guava snow egg and a 2009 Pegasus Bay 'Aria' Riesling from Waipara, New Zealand. A simple dessert that had a controlled amount of flavour that effectively acted as a denouement and brought my senses back to earth. I liked that a rich and bold dessert was not served to finish off this experience and that the biggest and boldest tastes were left to make an impression with the last savoury dish along with the black pudding that paired with the wallaby tail and the Yarra Valley Syrah.

After petit fours, we clocked up nearly four hours enjoying both conversation and this tasting menu. It proves that business can not only appropriately mix with pleasure but when you add a venue such as Quay and a wonderful degustation menu, time can literally get away from you.

The Quay ambiance has always been a matter of contention for me. Sure, you experience a great view and you are effectively distracted from the minimalist surrounds which I think is appropriate for the restaurant. The view of the harbour is first and foremost and can lead to distraction from your guests (as I have noticed in the past) but it certainly does add a certain amount of tranquility to the experience as you watch the ferries and tourist vessels move back and forth. When you make a booking in the summer, I would advise you to confirm that a cruise ship will not be docked in the harbour otherwise you will have the pleasure of looking at the side of the boat however in the past I have equally enjoyed dining experiences at Quay without the view as in the end, I at least am there for food, wine and conversation with a view as an afterthought. This is why I was a bit sullen when Shannon Bennett moved Vue de Monde from the humble Normanby Chambers on Little Collins Street to the opulent top floor of Rialto Tower in Melbourne so he could truly get a view of the world. Both Jacques Reymond and Attica have not fallen into that trap, or even gimmick, and in the end manage to excite your senses by having them focus on the matters at hand instead of what is happening outside.

Service throughout the four hours remained attentive, consultative and kind. I have frequently been caught out holding Sydney service to a different level than you experience in Melbourne and once again, I thought although service was great and for Sydney standards and it was top-notch, however when held against my Melbourne standards, it was just above average. I have always found the "top" restaurants to be a bit more service-focused in Melbourne and I noticed the small nuances once again at this trip to Quay. The dining area also became a bit warm. I noticed this on all of my previous visits when dining in this same area including in the evening also so it just wasn't because the sun was shining brightly in. I can only imagine what it would be like on a hot 40c sunny Sydney day.

I did really enjoy my trip to Quay and have always considered it one of my favourite restaurants in the city that I used to call home. Would I choose it over the Melbourne three hat restaurants, Vue de Monde, Attica or Jacques Reymond if I was given a complimentary free night out or if I won the Lotto? The easy answer is no however I do still rate this experience as one of the best that I have had in 2013 so far.

Quay received three chefs hats in the SMH 2012/2013 Good Food Guide and won restaurant of the year in 2011 and 2012. Quay was also ranked #48 in the world according to the 2013 San Pellegrino "World's Best" list.

Quay Restaurant, Circular Quay, Sydney

Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal
5 Hickson Rd  The Rocks NSW 2000
(03) 9251 5600
My Rating: 17.75/20
Service: 4.25/5
Ambiance: 4.5/5
Quality: 5/5
Value For Money: 4/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 86% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Quay.

Quay on Urbanspoon