April 13th, 2008

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - Restaurant Atelier (UPDATED)

Restaurant Atelier
is coming up to their fifth birthday. Originally in Newtown, they now occupy a cottage at the Parramatta Road end of Glebe Point Road. It's a nice location - I managed to get a parking space a mere stumble from the front door, and only paid $1.10/hour which is a far cry from the highway robbery committed for parking in other parts of our fair city. The crowd on the evening I attended were mostly older - a mean age perhaps between 50 and 55. On the weekends it's apparently younger.

The decor is warm and welcoming, in shades of crimson and taupe. A curtain near the door breaks up the space a little, as do gauzy taupe curtains between the two main rooms. A supremely comfortable black leather banquette runs nearly all the way around the cottage. There's also a lovely courtyard out the back that will cater to bigger groups (20-25), and you can request to dine outside if you so desire. The restaurant seats around 40-45 people, with an upstairs private dining room for 10.

The cuisine is ostensibly Modern European, but there's a heck of a lot of French influence and technique floating around in it - so in the end, it all felt kind of French to me. The menu, particularly with respect to the mains, is quite uncompromising - you selected from Duck, Squab (young, domestic pigeon), Tuna, Venison and Rabbit. There were few concessions to mainstream tastes, though you can get them to make you a vegetarian dish (unspecified on menu, but I am sure it'll be delightful) or order a vegetarian degustation (just give a couple of days notice if you want a completely vegetarian degustation).

We chose to have the 7 course degustation ($80/head), and we decided to go with the matched wine package that took the price up to $130/head. Degustations at Restaurant Atelier are designed for the table, taking into account any dietary/taste limitations, and drawing mostly from the ala carte menu, with a few unlisted surprises thrown in. We let the chef Darren Templeman take us where he wanted to by specifying no particular allergies or dislikes.

While we decided on what to eat, we were treated to Sourdough Bread ($3.00) with a selection of three great condiments - Echire Butter (French, excellent, but unsalted), a great grassy olive oil with aged Balsamic and an olive tapenade. They were all so great we over ate the bread - a dreadful mistake in this business that we paid for later.

Managing the floor is co-owner Bernadette Templeman. She's warm, friendly and she explains dishes in a way that makes all diners feel at home. She's also in charge of the wine list, and presents the wines. Her philosophy is that as a sommelier, she's competing with what you can buy in a bottle shop, so she makes a point not to choose wines you can readily find. As a result, it's well worth exploring her list for little-known gems. We saw wines from wineries that we have never seen on a list in Sydney thus far - including a lovely unfiltered chardonnay from Lake George that tasted predominantly of pineapple. Spirits, including name brands like Bombay Sapphire and Pimm's are all $7.00. If you really must, you can BYO at a cost of $8/bottle - but only on Tues-Fri nights.

The degustation itself began with a BANG - the Duck Egg Atelier. A seemingly mild mannered egg (which made me wish for soldiers, and made my dining companion pick it up and slurp out the remainder) filled with cubes of foie gras, cauliflower soubise (a sauce, this one had caramelised onions in it), and topped with a goat's cheese foam. The dish was total fireworks in the mouth and it was perfectly paired up with a French Sauterne called Lillet Blanc from Bordeaux.

The course by which I compared all others (my winning dish of the night) came up next. It was an Ocean Trout and Foie Gras Terrine served with a 2006 Bilancia Pinot Grigio from Hawkes Bay ($11/glass). The beautiful plating was eclipsed by the stellar (and complex) combination of raw ocean trout and foie gras - wow! That one's just heavenly! I liked the accompanying avocado puree, dashi and wasabi jelly, and the octopus carpaccio. I seriously cannot rave about this dish too much - the way it went together was poetic, and I will go back to this restaurant to have it again I'm sure!

After that amazing course, it would be hard to back up with anything as spectacular - so it's not surprising that I wasn't as impressed with the Wagyu Beef Tartare with Parsnip Ice-cream, Pickled Mushrooms and Quail Egg. I was however blown away by the delightful wine that accompanied it - a 2007 Massena Rose from the Barossa Valley made of Grenache, Mataro, Cinsaut and Petite Sirah. The wine was so lovely, I have been inspired to purchase some directly from the vineyard: http://massena.com.au/ at a bargain $20/bottle. The dish did impress with the intensity of the parsnip flavour in the ice-cream, and the heavenly garlic crisp anchored within. It was nice, just not as successful overall as the previous dish.

The next course came with a lovely Lake George 2004 Unfiltered Chardonnay ($9.50/glass) - I really liked this wine and began kicking myself for not stopping at the winery on our way home from Canberra in December. The dominant note was pineapple - it was really unusual for a chardonnay, and much more in the West Australian style. They also make an unfiltered Pinot Noir, which tends to be a bit dirty in the glass, but is apparently full of flavour.

The dish itself was fighting food. It wasn't on the ala carte menu, rather it was created from the special for the night. It was Veal Cheeks with Himalayan Truffle, Lobster Tail with Salmon Roe and a Lobster Tortellini with a Lobster Bisque Sauce, finished with Madeira and pureed Celeriac. It was one of those dishes that was so big in flavour, it made me want to weep. I liked the sauce, puree and lobster tail (which was really gently cooked, so I enjoyed it all the more). The tortellini (which I thought would provide welcome respite) was also huge in flavour, and I wont even go into how intense the veal cheek and slice of Himalayan Truffle were.

I trembled a bit as I waited for the next course - after how huge in taste the last one was, I was scared! The wine we got was a Whispering Brook Shiraz 2002 from the Hunter Valley ($9/glass, $36/bottle) which isn't really to my taste, so it's perhaps unsurprising that I would label it my least favourite wine of the evening. The dish was a Queensland Squab with Prosuitto, Shitake Mushrooms, Salsify and Truffled Linguine. Let's start with the linguine - superb - and topped with a green peppercorn foam. I was happy just eating this part of the dish - I could've happily had a bowl full.

The next course - well we thought hoped it was a course - was a Champagne Pannacotta with a Strawberry Granita. I loved the granita, hated the pannacotta - I just thought the champagne made the milkiness of the pannacotta slightly sour, and a little bit fizzy (two things I definitely don't appreciate in milk).

The next wine was a Vinden Estate Botrytis Semillon from the Hunter Valley ($14/glass) and it accompanied the course I forgot to photograph - there always has to be one in each long degustation. Imagine if you will a Chocolate Ganache with Kirsh Marinated Cherries, Coconut Mousse and a Citrus Dressing in this space. I loved the extreme coconut of the fluffy mousse, and the ganache was intensely chocolatey but I nearly choked on the kirsh marinated cherry - it was like firewater. For the second cherry I (wisely I thought) surrounded it with ganache and mousse before placing it in my mouth. I am either stupid or a glutton for punishment - but I still coughed when the firewater cut through the packaging!

We thought we had got through it, but then they brought out the triumphant Caramel Souffle with Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Whisky Creme Anglaise. I think I did squeeze out a tear. It was a light, fluffy eggy masterpiece, which was pricked at the table by Bernadette, who then poured the Whisky Creme Anglaise into it. This created an alcoholic butterscotch like caramel at the bottom that if I wasn't feeling so full I wanted to die, I would have scraped out every drop of, with little care of how it looked to other diners.  The salted caramel ice-cream was perhaps a tad intensely salty - but I loved it in theory. What an awesome dessert!

They're big on the little touches. I watched Bernadette Templeman visit every single table that arrived during the evening, and make a point of farewelling them personally as well. A neighbouring table's slightly oxidised (but not quite corked) wine was dealt with promptly by the waiter, but Bernadette also made a point of checking in later that their second bottle was satisfactory. I also liked the shelf under the air-conditioner that prevented the tables directly below from being blasted with cold air. My only complaint would be topping up the water glasses got somewhat obsessive in the early hours of our meal - they relaxed a bit about it later. It's a touchy one of course, because I am the first to admit I hate my water glass running dry... but there has to be a mid ground between letting it run dry, and topping it up after every two mouthfuls, no?

The thing I'd like to stress the most about this restaurant is the value for money. The price point of their degustation menu is a good $20-$45 under comparative restaurants, and you will not walk away hungry (even if you're smart and don't eat the bread). There's also a Midweek Dining Special (available  Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) where you receive a Starter, Main and Dessert for $59/head. So don't be put off by the price of their mains ($30-34). Besides, they really do use quality products - from my little peek into their sparkling kitchen, many seemed to be imported by Simon Johnson. I spied a lovely French Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Maldon Sea Salt. Perhaps the best praise I can heap on a restaurant these days, is whether (with 3300 restaurants in the Sydney Metropolitan area alone, and my own fetish for new and exciting) I would go back. And the answer is yes, I would love to dine at Restaurant Atelier again.

EDIT 13/04:

Being true to my word, on a night off recently we did dine at Restaurant Atelier again, and it blew me away again. Bernadette Templeman is quite a genius with wine matching. She's almost convinced me that I need to go back to chardonnay with her perfect match of a lovely 2005 Staete Landt Chardonnay from Marlborough, NZ with a simply stunning dish of ‘Tartare’ of House-Smoked New Zealand King Salmon, Crisp Zuchini Blossom & a Fennel & Goat Curd Ice Cream.

I also appreciated the match she made with the Roasted Loin & Confit Belly of Bundawarrah Organic Pork, Confit Garlic, Ceps & a Moreton Bay Bug Tortellini and a 2005 Rusden ‘Full Circle’ Mataro from the Barossa Valley, SA. It particularly complemented the black pudding. She has an extraordinary skill, and the food was divine. If you get a chance, get thee to this restaurant pronto!
Restaurant Atelier
22 Glebe Point Road, Glebe
Ph: (02) 9566 2112

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