December 15th, 2006

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - ARIA

Aria, Aria, Aria. How do I best describe thee? Perhaps as my new favourite restaurant? Yes... I think that would be fitting!

On the fateful night before we left for The Cook Islands, we were lucky enough to scam seats at the Gourmet Traveller Reader Dinner at Aria. It was a chance to taste the food from one of Sydney's best known chefs, Matt Moran, and do so at a price which would not break the bank - a very reasonable $95 per head, including matched wines.

The menu was a celebration of his newly launched self titled book, which incidentally I bought, because I enjoyed the food so much, I wanted some memorable food porn to take home. He even signed it for me with a personal comment, and a smiley face; and I carried it home with my Gourmet Traveller showbag, for later enjoyment!

The room the dinner was held in faced onto Circular Quay, and was tastefully and nicely lit. We dined in tables of 10, and I was seated next to his gorgeous 23 year old publicist (a neo-feminist who healthily believes that if men are stupid enough to be distracted by her breasts in a business meeting, then more fool them) and my partner. On his other side we met a woman who used to market the luxury property Lizard Island, and we became firm friends over the course of the dinner, resolving to share another meal with her post Xmas.

The Amuse Bouche was a tasty morsel of goats cheese, complete with attractive garnishes, and it served its purpose well - it made me ravenously hungry for what was to follow. Incidentally, the creamy texture of the cheese made it possibly the best goats cheese I have tried to date... but I am ashamed to say that I neglected to find out what it was called. However in his book he uses a St Maure de Touraine white mould goats cheese, which I will most definitely try, on the hope that it will be the same, or at least as good. The bread rolls and butter were nice, but did not top the bread rolls at Guilluame at Bennelong or the French Lescure butter at Bistro Ortolan.

Our first wine was a delightful 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from Nepenthe in the Adelaide Hills, and it was served with a Peking Duck Compote which completely reinvented soups for me. The intense flavours, the gorgeous peking duck dumpling, the tasty enoki mushrooms (which with the Trompette de la mort mushrooms, are rapidly becoming a firm favourite for me) and the baby herbs helped raise this soup up to the level of sublime. It was so good, I would even think of making it, (since I have the book and all) but the recipe spans two pages, and is a tad intimidating. Matt Moran did mention that the menu was composed of the more difficult dishes from his book.

Despite my rave review on the soup, it was instantly usurped as dish of the night for me by the Baked Scampi with celeriac and a scampi bisque. Not only did this dish use scampi - a firm favourite seafood of mine - it showed me that EVERY single other time I have had scampi, they have been sadly overcooked. The succulent, sweet flesh pulled out of the shell whole, demonstrating it was cooked through perfectly, however the texture of the crustacean was between cooked and something akin to carpaccio. The flavour was superb and it was highlighted by how gently it was cooked. It was also complimented texturally by the celeriac and crab remoulade (meaning bound in mayonnaise) that it perched upon, and flavour-wise by the scampi bisque. It left me almost weeping for more! I must admit that I barely noticed the 2004 Nepenthe Chardonnay that was served with it, I remember it being well-rounded, and having a bit of oak, but nothing more. The taste imprint from this dish will however live with me forever, probably driving me mad until I dine at Aria again.

My partner's favourite dish of the night was a Poached Lamb Loin served with Basil Mousse and lentils. The dish certainly impressed me too, with the intricate construction of parcels of lamb loin and basil mousse, wrapped in spinach and served on a bed of lentils - a much underused ingredient if I do say so myself. I must admit I was fascinated with the texture of the basil mousse, and only really understood how it could be so when I read the recipe - it contained minced chicken breasts, which gave it the spectacular texture and consistency. The lamb itself was amazing, and rivaled the best lamb I have tasted - predictably enough whilst we were in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Seated by a very attractive vegetarian publicist has its advantages. Not only did I get to admire her confidence, I got to ogle (and taste) her food. She highly recommended the Baby Vegetable Salad with Persian Fetta and Hazelnut Dressing as her personal favourite dish from the vegetarian offerings in his book. She also offered me many samples of perhaps the most divine gnocchi I have ever tasted, braised, with pecorino and a pumpkin sauce. These tiny morsels of golden brown potato were so intensely good, they blew away the lamb I was supposed to be enjoying! Incidentally, both dishes went beautifully with the 2004 Nepenthe 'The Good Doctor' Pinot Noir which was my partner's selection for wine of the night. For myself, I was a little partial to the Sauvignon Blanc served with the soup.

Our final course was a Mango Carpaccio served with Lime Icecream, which sounds like simplicity itself - and it was - but it was also elegantly sophisticated too! The mango thinly sliced, and laid out over the plate as per a carpaccio. It was covered with candied peel, mint and thinly sliced toasted coconut, and drizzled with a gorgeous passionfruit glaze. Plonked in the centre was a ball of the best lime ice cream imaginable, made so by the clever addition of Limoncello in the ingredients - super tasty, and it complimented the mango oh-so-well. The dish was so good I failed to notice my glass of 2006 Two Hands 'Brilliant Disguise' Moscato from the Barossa Valley until the last luscious mouthful had made its way into my mouth. I consider this to be a testament to a brilliant dessert, that complimented the rest of the menu, and left me with a huge smile on my face (and the publicist's young friend asking for more).

Coffee and Petit Fours were were a lovely surprise (as were the bottomless wine glasses). I was however frustrated that the table got so many different ones, and I couldn't try them all! The two I had were the best examples of this genre of food I have ever had - a coconut truffle, and a peppermint (and possibly lime) meringue, that incidentally was a vivid green.

This was a stunning meal, that left me satisfied in all respects. I was chuffed that Matt Moran spoke at the meal for quite a while, telling us about himself, his culinary history, and his inspirations and plans for a future television series modeled on Gordon Ramsey's The F Word (one of my favourite shows). Matt showed himself to be a charming, personable man, and a devastatingly good chef. I can see why Donna Hay feels the need to criticise him, and I hope she turns up as a lamb fattened for the slaughter in the upcoming show, in the spirit of Gordon Ramsey's celebrity chef named turkeys!

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