We haven't been out to a degustation for a while, and my email has been overflowing with various wine dinners, it seems the new way to gain interest in your restaurant. When I saw one for the South West of France at Becasse, my ears pricked. I have always wanted to dine at Becasse, and the South West of France as a wine region interests me because I have drank very few wines from this area.
These dinners are a regular occurrence at Becasse. They're not a huge money-spinners for the restaurant - rather the aim is more to introduce new patrons to the cooking and the space. By Sydney standards, I think it's very good value to get seven courses with seven matched French wines for $110 per person at a restaurant that boasts two hats, cooked by the SMH's 2009 Chef of the Year.
Having not set foot in the restaurant before, I was interested in the decor. An arrangement of death lilies on the front desk added to the funereal ambience of high ceilings, vertical drapes and muted greys. The long room is made larger by a nicely beveled mirror. Circles are repeated in the art works which include metal, wooden and painted pieces all with a similar theme. It's hushed tones and stiff upper lips here; you’ll find yourself speaking at a whisper without even knowing why. The circular LED bling chandeliers lighten the atmosphere and Justin North’s Rosemary and Garlic Bread presented with crème fraîche is equally light (and makes you want more than just one slice).
While not all courses blow the mind, the plating is uniformly brilliant across all dishes (with the possible exception of this dish which seemed to be an extra dish to the advertised six course degustation). The canapé (left) is a black olive pastry with liquorice créme fraiche. While there was a sweet note in the cream, it wasn't really discernible as liquorice.
On the right is an amuse bouche of duck liver parfait which is actually an excellent match with the wine, a Floc de Gascogne Labouc which I enjoyed despite the paint-stripper nose. My wine tasting abilities aren't excellent, but I got lemon, a sherbet like sweetness and a bit of kerosene. The fortified wine was made from three grapes, the only one I recognised (our waiter had a thick French accent) was Colombard. The golden enoki and duck parfait went well with the wine because the sauce had a lemony edge as well.
Next up is a 2006 Chateau Laulerie, 'Comtesse de Segur', Montravel which is a Sémillon(50%) and Sauvignon Blanc (50%) blend that I enjoyed, particularly for the restrained oak. It's served with a Toulouse style pork terrine with scallops, crackling and parsnips. I liked the presentation a lot, the individual elements were all very well cooked, particularly the crunchy, salty crackling. The scallop got a bit lost with all the other flavours, and as such felt a little unnecessary. My dining companion hated the cabbage covering the brown roast meat of the terrine. Personally I didn't mind it - it kind of broke up the intensity of flavour a bit.
Our next dish looked very pretty and autumnal - I likened it to autumn leaves falling on the plate. It was a Fricassee of rabbit and crayfish with Jerusalem artichoke puree, cardamom jus. Sadly I found the cardamon hard to find. The bunny was cooked three ways. I loved the breast, enjoyed the loin and was okay with the more intense brown bits scattered over the plate. My dining companion liked those bits the best.
To me this restaurant is characterised by restraint, which is a little sad if like me, you're after unusual flavours. I was looking forward to both the liquorice in the first dish and the cardamon in this one, and both felt very muted. Accent made the wine hard to get much about. It's a 2007 Domaine Berthoumieu, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh Sec which is a combination of three varieties including Petit Marsang. I didn't think this match was particularly good, and I wasn't sure what the crayfish were doing in the dish.
My least favourite dish of the night was this Cocoa tart fine of beetroot and cured venison, Swede gratin and tart berry jus. Perhaps by not liking swede, I was predisposed to dislike this dish. The tart was excellent in this dish, the swede looked great but had that awful element of sweaty socks that always makes me hate it, the deer was chewy. I also hated the wine upon the first sip. It was a 2005 Elian Da Ros, Cotes de Marmandais made from 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. When I had a second sip, I decided it had been served too cold so I warmed it with my hands to room temperature (about 21C) and it gained a whole lot of sweetness and I thus enjoyed it a lot more. It still had a relentless acidity (common across all the wines in this degustation) which I objected to.
One of the real highlights of the meal was the lamb shoulder slow cooked in an Earl Grey tea salt crust with an intensely good field mushroom puree, balanced by the acidity of smoked cherry tomatoes and trickled with a tea infused lamb jus. North nailed this dish. It looked beautiful on the plate too, and the tea flavour was very present. It was served with a 2004 Chateau la Coustarelle, Cahors which is 90% Malbec, and thus a bit big for me, but it was a good match.
I was also in raptures over the aromatic poached red quince with orange curd, caramel candied oranges and cubes of spice cake. The ginger is delicate, the orange curd is gorgeous, the cake is springy and tasty, the acidity of the sorbet refreshes the palate and you're ready for the next spoon full then the next, and the next... Wine of the night went to the 2006 Domaine Rotier Renaissance, Gaillac served with it. The grape (name escaped me) is native to the South West of France, there's no botritys, a hint of honey and a lively acidity.
Pop a salted toffee caramel petit four into your mouth and wait for the instant the salt penetrates your taste-buds - it’ll make you forgive any of the meal's more muted moments. It's on the left; there's also a chocolate and Grand Marnier truffles, almond and vanilla chew, prune and Armagnac financier. I only remember the taste of the caramel, oh and my dining companion's comment about the almond and vanilla chew - "expensive sesame snap". We had it with a 1976 Francis Darroze Bas-Armagnac which I hated, way too big for me.
The restaurant is highly staffed, though I found the pacing of our degustation a little slow, especially considering the restaurant was not full. At one point our wine had to be refilled because the dish took too long, at another point our waiter had to motor to get the wine on the table by the skin of his teeth before the dish landed. Not every dish was a winner for me, though nor would I expect them all to be because of that crucial matter of individual preference.
There's certainly a lot to recommend this restaurant, and if you like restraint, they're very good at not letting any one flavour dominate. It's top end but not too challenging, so you could take just about anyone, even vegetarians as they have a vegetarian (and indeed vegan) degustation that a vegetarian friend recommends quite whole-heartedly. The regional wine dinners are exceptionally good value, and you can find out about them by joining their mailing list.
204 Clarence Street, Sydney
Ph: (02) 9283 3440