November 23rd, 2006

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review: Bistro Ortolan

At the last minute, we decided to have a decadent mid-week dinner, and rang Bistro Ortolan, to find out more about their degustation, reported as being 9 course for $90 (sans wine) in last week's Good Living. Whilst the lady on the phone was delightful and took the trouble to explain the dishes in the degustation, and fitted me in on such short notice, she also told us a few things which were not correct. We were told that matched wines took it up to $150 per head, and that there were 9 course with 9 glasses of wine. In the end, matched wines added $45 per person, taking the whole price to $135 per head, and there were only 7 courses that came with wine. In a sense this type of thing could be solved by making the number of courses in a degustation the number of courses that come with a wine match, and then adding the other two as surprises (being that one is in fact an amuse bouche, and the other is a pre-dessert granita).

The restaurant is on Marion Street, quite close to the Leichhardt Market Town Shopping Centre. We chose to dine outside on their large balcony due to the heat, and from the faces on the inside diners, I believe we made a clever choice. We decided to go with the matched wines, because it allows you to drink more widely than choosing your own bottle (or two). A quick peruse of the wine list showed that prices were quite reasonable, ranging from about $32-$76 per bottle, with a reasonable amount of imported French wines, and a spattering of New Zealand wines as well as home grown wine.

The service was variable, depending upon whom serviced our table. I enjoyed the service by one of the owners, Jenny McGrath, the most, as she was able to tell me the most about both the wines and the food, down to the brand of French butter. Unfortunately this did not always carry through to her staff, one of whom presented a wine without even knowing the name of it, or the region it was from.

The amuse bouche was a cup of iced tomato essense. Having read Good Living, I was a little disappointed that it did not have the floating wasabi on top, but regardless, it was an amazing iced concoction, tasting like the centre of sharp, cherry tomatoes. It perhaps lacked the sophistication of the tomato consumme we had at Guillaume at Bennelong recently, but it looked beautiful, and tasted like summer. It was also the first glimpse of the thing I thought this restaurant did EXCEEDINGLY well - and that was 'baby' vegetable selection and quality.

Our first wine was delivered shortly after, and it was a 2004 Sancerre 'Cellier de Pauline' Domain Eric Louis, from France. It was quite an unusual wine, with great minerality (slatey), and a long finish. We were also given warm bread rolls (unfortunately not made in house, but good none-the-less) and some divine butter. In fact, the butter was the best I have had at a restaurant. Whilst our first waitperson did not know what it was, Jenny McGrath was quick to tell us that it was called Lescure Butter. I will be hunting out my own supplier of this heavenly spread with little delay!

Our second offering was a deconstructed Salad Nicoise, which was creatively and beautifully plated. It was also unlike any previous Salad Nicoise I have had, in that it used seared Yellowfin Tuna, a softly cooked Quail egg, and a Ligurian olive and anchovy vinaigrette. This dish appealed to me immensely in the 'food as entertainment' stakes, as you got to 'reconstruct' your salad in all sorts of delightful flavour combinations. And again, the produce shone - the baby beans were probably the best beans I have ever eaten, and in my favourite combination (quail egg, disk of potato, and baby beans with a small slice of tuna) they delivered crunch and taste!

A glass of 2006 Mount Langi Ghiran Reisling provided a very wet mouth feel and fresh green fruit taste after the bold journey into the salad. It was delightfully low on acid, and one of the cheapest wines by the bottle on their list. It also went very well with the most challenging dish of the night - a Creviche of King George Whiting and Coffin Bay Sea Urchin with baby fennel and horseradish. Again, the presentation was superb - this dish came to the table INSIDE a sea urchin, and when you took a mouthful, it was like tasting the sea, a costal rock pool to be precise. It was texturally superb too, with the fish raw, yet having the flavour of being cooked by the marinade. The small pieces of toast were a perfect foil to the bold flavours, and the wine match was also excellent.

Sipping from a glass of a 2004 Mahi Twin Valleys Vineyard Chardonnay, I was mainly tasting the upfront oak. It seemed to come into its own however when the Slow-cooked fillet of Tasmanian Salmon with spinach and fennel croquette and almond emulsion arrived - definitely a food wine for me.  This amazing slab of Tasmanian salmon had been cooked at incredibly low temperatures for five hours. Our waitperson was quick to point out that it was not raw. To me it was obviously cooked, but had the texture and taste more akin to raw fish than cooked, and frankly, with salmon, I MUCH prefer it that way. The croquette was also a highlight, stuffed with spinach, and a crisp foil to the salmon, which you could split by nudging it with your fork! I also liked the frothy almond emulsion, and would have enjoyed more of it to consume with the salmon.

At this point the restaurant started to really fill up, and as a consquence, our 2004 Yering Station Pinot Noir took a while, and was served way too warm, so I will not say much about it, as I think my taste was clouded by this. It was served with my favourite dish, a strange combination of Fillet of Northern Territory Barramundi with Port Lincoln Baby Squid and Braised Lamb Shoulder. These three ingredients rested on a bed of the most divine puree - I am sure it was corn, but there seemed to be creamy, buttery goodness added in there too! There were also some small roasted pieced of corn which continued the baby produce theme. The squid was perfectly cooked, and artfully arranged into a little spiral; the lamb was buttery and slow cooked, falling apart in your mouth; and the barramundi had a buttery texture, and a tasty crisp edges. They all went perfectly with the puree, and as a consequence, with each other. Perhaps this dish was the reason I barely noticed the wine! Superbly done!

The kitchen and service staff I think struggled a little from this point on, as the delays between courses got much longer, though there was no corresponding slump in the food execution. The next wine was one I have not tried before - a 2004 Bass Phillip ' Barrel Aged' Gamay. The smell was a little port-like, with an edge of tobacco. The oak on the nose meant that the fruity smells were somewhat subsumed, but the actual oak smelt much nicer than the earlier chardonnay. Tasting it returned the fruit, and it was a wet, quaffable wine that I really enjoyed, probably the wine of the night for me. The dish it complemented was also a new thing for me - rabbit! Now up until now, I have resisted eating bunnies, but the Confit of White Rabbit with Cauliflower Lyonnaise and spring onions did indeed tempt me! The flesh was rather similar to chicken breast, white, and tasty. The baby onions were beautiful, and sweet, and they went well with the perfectly square cubes of potato, and the cauliflower gratin. It was nice to note that what is in season is important to the chef, as he substituted the cauliflower for the previously used Jerusalem artichokes, which had gone out of season the previous weekend.

On the downhill slope, we drank a 2005 Torbrek 'The Bothie' Muscat, which tasted, as most muscats do, of muscatel grapes. It was paired with a Brillat Savarin with walnut toast and fig paste. This was the dish I liked the least, which is odd, because I love my French cheese! Now I will say, this is not the first time I have tried this cheese, and in past times I have preferred other French Triple Cream Bries (particularly the Délice de Bourgogne) to this one, as it is a bit sour. I really thought the cheese was a bit far gone, as I could mainly taste ammonia, and the rind taste had penetrated the whole cheese. My partner ate his, but without relish, I gave up on the rind side of mine. The accompaniements (which also included pink lady apple) were great, particularly the quince paste, which was tinned, and tasted the most like ones we have had imported from Spain.

To clear the mouth, and counter the heat, we enjoyed our White Nectarine and Mint Tea Granita very much! It was delightfully light, and quite innovative in its use of mint tea, rather than just fresh mint. It was served in a shot glass, with tiny diced white nectarine littered throughout.

Our final wine was a 2006 Margan Botrytis Semillion, which we were actually served our first full glass of. A strange choice to change the serving size on, I thought (and the wine I liked the least to boot). All in all I am not convinced that the wine package was good value, and if I went again for the degustation, I would not order it. Our $90 could have been much better spent ordering two bottles from their wine list, and we probably would have even had more wine, and some change!

Dessert was lovely - a Pink Grapefruit and Campari Souffle with Almond Milk Icecream. It was presented in a tea cup, by a panting waitperson who had run up the stairs on orders from the chef (so as not to let the souffle fall). A crisp toffee morsel balanced on the rich and decadent ice cream, and a jug of grapefruit and campari cream made a great foil to the eggy souffle. Reading the menu of desserts, I would be most interested in returning to try another dessert, based upon the success of this difficult offering.

We weren't able to linger long over a steaming pot of mint tea and petits fours as our air conditioning beckoned in the extreme heat, but I liked the friand the best of the three. There was also a filled chocolate morsel, and a pair of tiny shortbread rounds sandwiching some decadent caramel. We left feeling happy, that it was a solid dining experience - the food was superb, the produce shone, and that with a little tweaking on the service and wine value, it would be perfect.
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