Framed in the window onto George Street, we’re seated in what was formerly Rockpool’s top table; right where the savvy restaurateur would tuck his celebrity diners, showing them off to passing foot traffic. These days it’s the home of William Blue Dining, the training restaurant for the William Blue College of Hospitality Management; a practical classroom where their students get to hone their skills and showcase their talents to paying guests.
Replacing art on the restaurant's walls you’ll find glossy graduate posters of their alumni, who now hold positions everywhere from Rydges and the Park Hyatt, to head chef at House of Crabs.
As a diner, William Blue Dining offers you the chance to eat a three-course meal in a fancy setting at a mere fraction of the price you’ll pay in Sydney’s other fine diners. Three Courses ($43/head) is pretty hard to beat. What makes it all the more incredible is the fact that you're eating the same Pepe Saya butter and Milly Hill lamb cutlets, that the big hitters are serving. There’s also good value to be found on their wine list, which ventures beyond the standards, into interesting drops like the 2016 Radford Dale Chenin Blanc ($62) from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Citrusy with a lick of salt and minerals, there’s a subtle hint of malolactic fermentation that keeps this wine interesting until the last drop.
It also makes it a cracker of a wine for seafood, like the delicate Spanner Crab and Prawn Rémoulade ($13) dished up with samphire (a beach plant), smoked mussels, pickled kohlrabi and shellfish espuma. (Don’t get intimidated by the culinary terms - espuma is just another word for foam.) Vinegar from the pickle and low acidity works to give this cold seafood and creamy rémoulade dish a seasonally appropriate feel. It enlivens the palate and gets your stomach ready for more wintery excesses.
Sweet Corn and Lemongrass Soup ($10) poured over pan-seared scallops is delicious. While my tongue finds some cheeky cuts in the scallops where the chef has checked whether they’re fully cooked, it’s a lack of cooking confidence that you'll find replicated in many of Sydney’s fully-fledged restaurants.
Rather than trend-based or fashionable, the dishes at William Blue Dining are designed to teach the students specific cooking techniques. The floor staff should be able to explain any words you don’t understand in layperson’s terms, and it’s a good exercise for them to answer questions. With the Pan-Roasted Duck Breast ($20) you’ll find a textbook leek and mushroom pithivier (pie) made with tasty rehydrated porcini mushrooms and flaky pastry. There’s also a parsnip fondant, where the humble parsnip has been shaped and slowly browned in butter and stock until it’s glazed and full of flavour. The French green lentils (lentilles du Puy) are also beautifully cooked.
Roasted Milly Hill Lamb Cutlets ($20) arrive juicy, pink and nicely presented. Lamb shoulder rillettes add some intensity to the dish that is broken up by the confit tomatoes, crisp cauliflower and gentle jus.
This dish wants for a side, and the Lyonnaise Salad ($7) answers the call admirably, with springy mixed green leaves, crunchy coutons, crisp bacon and a perfectly poached egg.
Break up the egg and mix it through the salad to give it some winter weight. The watercress is a particular standout, as is the sharp vinaigrette that cuts through the richness like a knife.
The kitchen here, as I observe on the path to the quaint bathrooms, is spotlessly clean. No mark, no smears, no handprints appear anywhere on the shiny metal pass.
The kitchen is also excellent at portion control: the entrée left me hungry for more, the main was filling but not so big I didn’t enjoy my side, and my Pecan Pie ($10) was dainty and delightful. The moist pie was served with a curl of pumpkin spice ice cream, and a cloud of whipped buttermilk cream, capped off with candied pecans.
You want it with the Turkey Flat ‘Pedro’ Ximenez ($10) from the Barossa Valley. This Aussie dessert wine has a wonderful nose – I could smell it for days – but drinks with less intensity than its Spanish cousins. With the pecan pie it brings up cookie dough flavours, adding to an all-round American adventure.
Friendly staff – our waiter’s name was John - encourage me into trying the 2012 Singlefile Botrytis Riesling ($9/glass) from the Great Southern. It’s got a petrochemical nose and tastes of honey, making it way too sweet for me; that is, until I start eating my dining companion's Orange Savarin ($10). This puffy little, booze-soaked cake with marmalade ice cream, dehydrated citrus and candied kumquat entices me into loving the wine. I enjoy every last bite. As I mentioned before, the portion control (a chef’s key to profitability) here is really on point.
William Blue Dining
107 George Street, The Rocks
Ph: (02) 9492 3290
NOTE: See a previous review for this venue HERE.