Bennelong is more casual and relaxed than ever before — but that doesn't mean the food isn't show-stopping.
Winner of Concrete Playground's Best New Restaurant of 2015.
Peter Gilmore has ditched the fancy, fiddly techniques he's famous for (see: Snow Egg) and created an informal menu with approachable prices at the opera house. Can you believe it? Bloody brilliant, thanks Pete!
They've spent 18 months redesigning the space and the end result is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Channelling Jorn Utzon, the interior is a mid-century Danish look with Hermes chairs, copper fixtures, orange carpet and a striking light installation of golden, melting orbs by Tom Dixon. The most beautiful feature is, of course, Sydney Harbour, which you can see in an epic panorama which spans the bridge, the promenade, the quay and even the tops of the CBD.
No longer just a destination for rich Gallic-lovers (sorry Guillaume), Bennelong is more casual and relaxed than it's ever been before. The guy next to me even felt comfortable enough to wear a T-shirt with an armhole tear; although I wouldn't necessarily follow his lead. Bennelong has five different dining options to choose from. Here's where it gets tricky. There's The Bar and The Circle for drinks and nibbles; Cured and Cultured, the casual dining option; The Restaurant, the main event; and The Kitchen, six VIP seats in the kitchen for a behind-the-scenes experience.
Gilmore has scrunched up the old degustation menu and chucked it in the bin. Instead there's a three-course menu for The Restaurant and share plates for Cured and Cultured. The Cured and Cultured counter offers you front row seats to the action, and by action, I mean calm and collected chefs assembling dishes ever so delicately with tweezers (don't try this at home, or if you do, at least buy culinary tweezers).
We start with olives, rosemary, lemon and salt. That's our cocktail by the way; it's called the Botanical Gardens ($18), and it's a deliciously savoury concoction which makes me feel like I've just eaten antipasto. It's a similar deal with Harbouring Suspicions ($19), an enchanting mix of figs, lemon and gin topped with a thick beard of creamy goat's cheese air.
From the food offerings, we start with the culatello ($30), a premium cured meat which comes from the heart of the prosciutto. The culatello is made from Byron Bay Berkshire black pigs and this is the only restaurant in Australia that serves it, so I'm feeling pretty special right now. It's served with homemade barley toasts (like Melba toasts but way better), truffle butter and cocktail radishes. Magnificent.
To follow, we have the super fun, make-your-own pikelets ($30), served with lemon jam, cultured cream and red claw yabbies in the shell. You'll momentary forget where you are, licking the sticky, fizzy jam off your fingers and having an absolute ball with these devilishly sweet and savoury delights.
The highlight is the steak tartare of cold-smoked Blackmore wagyu ($28) with fermented chilli paste, cultured grains, sesame, seaweed and egg yolk. The cultured grains resemble breakfast cereal littered over the top, and give you that same crunchy, crispy satisfaction of busting into a bag of chips. Don't expect any of the classic French flavours; this spicy, Asian version is packed with snap, crackle and pop.
The dessert options are simply stated. There's cherry jam lamington, strawberries and cream, eight textured chocolate cake (eight) and a cheese board. You can also order dessert from the Bennelong menu, where you'll find a brilliant replica of the opera house in pavlova form, complete with meringue shard sails. The body has been piped in a gloss and matte pattern of Italian meringue and double cream, and the fruit — beautifully poached rhubarb, strawberries and raspberries — is hidden within. Expect peaches, plums and nectarines when warmer weather hits.
Having been given the Bennelong menu, I take a few moments to flip through the pages and drool. There's Macleay Valley suckling pig, roasted John Dory with umami butter, cream caramels and millefeuille. Well, if Cured and Cultured is anything to go by, you can take my reservation right now.
Images: Nikki To and Destination NSW.