October 25th, 2006

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Guillaume at Bennelong




After a frustrating day, I had to really try and get my head into a space to appreciate the rare chance to enjoy a restaurant of this quality - after all, it takes a higher wage than mine to be able to dine at Guillaume at Bennelong without having to really save for it. So the opportunity presented by the SMH's Good Food Month '06 for a degustation of dishes by one of the most famous Sydney chefs celebrating Australian seafood was not to be missed or squandered by a bad mood.

I must admit to embarking on this exercise with some skepticism about what exactly "three hats" could entail. I mean as a diner, I felt like I already had an appreciation of fine produce, and in my wide dining pleasures, I figured that I had already experienced some rather stellar food.

My partner's skepticism was based upon 'location, location' - and after all, as we dined in the apex of the restaurant, surveying all of Sydney (and Alan Jones' penthouse, staring for signs of life from the recently outed homophobic homosexual) it would be easy to be caught up in the magic that is produced by dining in an architectural wonder, perched on the vista of a beautiful city.

Our Amuse Bouche was a Mini Crab Sandwich, and without being anything more than it should have been, it managed to make us ravenously hungry for what was to follow. It reminded me of the simple pleasure of white bread with the crusts cut off, and of Leo Schofield's recent column in Gourmet Traveller where he called a crab mayonnaise sandwich "singularly luxurious" and mentioned that one such sandwich might last longer in your memory than a three star dinner. I smiled to myself and hoped fervently that Leo was not going to be on the money tonight.

Our first wine was a 2005 Crawford River 'Young Vines' Riesling, and it was one of the softest rieslings I have tasted, comparing favourably with my last sublime riesling experience - a freshly bottled Pegasus Bay consumed in the grounds of the winery. It left your mouth wet, and was delightful with the delicate flavours of the Hiramasa Kingfish Sashimi served with Sterling Caviar and traditional accompaniments. This dish was a delicate symphony of flavours - raw fish, resting on a bed of smooth cream, flavoured gently with something akin to horseradish or wasabi, and a powdery topping of what I imagined to be fried shallots.

A long white plate with three Queensland Scallops resting in their shells on small piles of rock salt arrived with a flourish. Small piles of orange ocean trout roe were piled atop of the delicately sealed scallop flesh, which in turn rested on a creamy confit of leek. Our glasses were filled with a 2005 French Island Pinot Gris from the Mornington Peninsula, and the combination was again an exercise in delicate restraint. I truly believe I have never had a better cooked scallop, and my understanding of what it is to perfectly cook a scallop has been narrowed and refined by this experience. Without a hint of chewiness, the flesh was both meaty and yielding. The flavour superb, and the accompaniments only served to highlight the natural taste of the scallop, not overwhelm or alter it. The wine contained the fruity elements we are so fond of in an Australian Pinot Gris, whilst also nodding to the minerality of the Italian style - it oozed sophistication, responded well to being consumed with food, but also was quite the wetly, refreshing quaffing wine.

Our glasses were now filled with a 2005 Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay which excited me to no end. It was like a new direction in Australian chardonnay - there was oak, but almost as soon as it began it was over, rather than leaving a long, sharp note in the mouth as is so often the case with oaked wines.  It was another wet wine, and when we tasted the Roasted Barramundi with white asparagus, beetroot, baby tomatoes and lemon caper vinaigrette we could see this was just why it had been selected. Though this was far from my favourite dish, it did succeed in rescuing capers from the pile of ingredients for which I hold little regard. The tomato was a mouth explosion, and the fish was beautifully cooked.

By this point I have decided that Alan Jones' third from the top apartment has the lights on a timer, and he's actually not home - though in my earlier fantasy, he was crawling along the floor in shame, avoiding being seen by those who'd judge him a hypocrite. As if to punctuate my acceptance of the fact, the lights switch off, and the next course arrives in a martini glass.

Who would have thought that a menu that seemed to be an exercise in restraint could shift gears so suddenly? The broth was transparent, with microscopic cubes of floating vegetables. For a tomato consomme, it tasted less of tomato than it did of apple cider, peppercorns and something else I could not identify. Floating within were a few bluish Clarance River School Prawns, barely cooked, and as a result, quite delicately flavoured. It was a complete gear change.

The next wine was the only foray into red on the menu - 2005 Springvale Pinot Noir, which was delightfully fruity on the nose and in the mouth, though it lacked the elements of forest floor that I have become fond of in the style. Whilst I probably wouldn't go out of my way to consume it again, it complimented the star attraction perfectly - and that star was Local Lobster wrapped in Bangalow Proscuitto with Carnaroli Risotto and a veal jus reduction. This dish was, without a doubt, the most spectacular moment of the meal. The complexity of the dish belies any simple explanation - in the first taste I tried the risotto, relishing the grainy texture from the carnaroli use, and tasting what I determined to be a quasi-Indian flavour base. The lobster flesh itself was succulent and caramelised, drawing this I would assume from the sweetness of the Bangalow pork. And the proscuitto itself? Wow - who would have thought that pork could ever eclipse lobster? What a combination!

Feeling well satisfied, and somewhat tipsy from the wine, I sank into my glass of 2006 Mount Horrocks 'Cordon Cut' Riesling like one does into an old familar couch - grateful that this was a wine I had tried before, leaving me more processing time to try and categorise what I had just eaten. And I am still processing those flavours...

A sharp shock of passionfruit sorbet with crisp acidity and relatively little sweetness brought the wine into it's own, and a mouthful of the eggy, fluffy goodness of a superbly risen passionfruit sorbet threw me into a spin. The two contrasting flavours danced on my tongue, hinting at the need for a food coma. Warm fluffy egg-based and sweet, tangoing with cold, and sharp and acidic. Ever had a dessert play you like an instrument? I needed a coffee like my lover craves a cigarette after sex.

Steaming and beautiful it arrived on the stained white linen - the marks of great food well enjoyed. The thick crema swallowed the sugar with an almost audible suck. Later, as I arrived home, with the caramel notes of a sublime coffee still on my lips, I admitted to myself that I do indeed still have a lot to learn about food.