The Quay, Sydney Restaurant Review 2011

Posted on: August 5th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

No self respecting foodie could visit Sydney without dining at Quay, Australia’s leading restaurant. It was named this in 2011 when it gained 26th place in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Previously, it had achieved a host of distinctions including the Three Chefs Hats award for nine consecutive years from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. This publication also named it Restaurant of the Year in 2009 and 2010, the same years as The Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide awarded it the same accolade. To achieve this in two consecutive years is unique amongst Australian restaurants.

Located on the western side of Circular Quay, with views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the restaurant occupies a site that is the envy of all other Australian restaurateurs, and many foreign ones besides.

As John Fink, co-owner and General Manager was keen to point out, the functional nature of the steel and glass structure, along with the relatively simple but elegant designs of mirrored walls, tiled ceilings, carpets, furniture and fittings allow the magnificence of the surroundings to take centre stage. This is a similar concept to Michel Bras’s Laguiole French countryside restaurant.

At lunchtime, when the restaurant is bathed in brilliant sunshine, the activities around the harbour and busy Circular Quay, with its ferry terminals, railway station, shopping attractions and Opera House, can all be clearly observed. In the evening, when the lighting is dimmed, the stunning nocturnal panorama of glittering harbour city gives a vibrant, celestial feel.

A table in the tower, or the private dining room above, will give the best views of both iconic landmarks – the Harbour Bridge towering on the left and the more distant Opera House on the right. But any seat in this heavily over subscribed 110 cover restaurant will not disappoint. In the main dining room large, well spaced tables line the window with a parallel row raised on a dais, which has comfortable banquette seating and equally good views.

However, the chief glories of Quay are its food and inspirational chef Peter Gilmore. Even in a short conversation one could not fail to be impressed by the passion and dedication shown to his craft. These qualities, tied to his boundless energy, prodigious talent and modest, unassuming nature, have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. Widely acknowledged as a “Chefs’ Chef,” his ten year leadership has brought well deserved national and international acclaim. At 42 years of age, one might expect a diminution of his creative genius but this is far from being the case. Whilst the essence of his nature based philosophy of food is captured in his first magisterial cookbook, Quay: Food Inspired by Nature, dishes are still being developed in his experimental kitchen, sometimes variations of recipes detailed in his book. Alternatively, new dishes might be trialled as specials on the menu. Either way, an abundance of innovation and exploration, with elements of fun and surprise, is clearly evident.

Peter Gilmore’s cuisine respects and celebrates the bounty of Nature’s gift with its exciting original creations. Purity of taste harmony of ingredients and textural integrity are paramount. A penchant for using baby vegetables and flowers, some of which are rare and obscure, is facilitated by collaboration with Blue Mountains boutique farmer Richard Kalina. This ensures the exceptional quality of seasonal, organic ingredients. Equal care is taken in the provenance of fish, meat and game, with sustainability and high ethical standards being important considerations. The menu acknowledges by name the suppliers of ingredients as diverse as Suffolk lamb, palm hearts and young herbs.

The presentation of dishes avoids extraneous smears or scatterings in favour of a natural, organic simplicity, with clean lines and elegant proportions. In this respect, the influence of Japanese cuisine is evident. A range of cooking techniques embracing modern technology is used to preserve or modify the flavour of ingredients, Happily Peter is not obsessed with sous-vide, appreciating its limitations and preferring sometimes to use temperature controlled poaching.

Fine-Dining-Guide had the pleasure of visiting Quay on a week day lunchtime in August. The eight course tasting menu with matching wines was the best way of sampling the delights of Peter Gilmore’s cutting edge repertoire. The content balance of the menu is carefully judged, so that bread is not offered until the more robust game and meat courses are reached.

An amuse bouche of soft white carrot puree topped with tiny cubes of smoked eel jelly and rye crumbs encapsulated the key features of Peter Gilmore’s cooking: the use of unusual ingredients, a distinct flavour profile, textural contrast and elegant presentation.

The first course was “Sea Pearls.” Inspired by the varying colours of natural pearls, the chef’s signature dish comprised four perfectly shaped iridescent spheres, each containing utterly fresh seafood set in jelly. More than any other dish, itreflects the labour intensity and attention to detail needed in Peter Gilmore’s cooking. Mud crab, enlivened with yuzu and coated with a congee of tapioca had clean, clear flavours. Delicate, sweet scallop was given heat by a horseradish creme fraiche. Tuna sashimi encased a jellied dashi centre, the sweetness of which acted as foil to the rich fish. Finally, a brandade of smoked eel came wrapped in a layer of egg white pearls, achieved through the painstaking method of usingan eye dropper to transfer the strained egg white into grape seed oil at 70 degrees. This provided a delicate taste without the greasiness associated with fish. Overall, “Sea Pearls” was visually beautiful dish, a gastronomic tour de force of conception and execution, and one which it will be impossible to take off the menu! The aromatic crisp, dry young wine, with its peach and floral notes, proved an ideal match for this course. (Wine: 2009 Dona Payterna Alvarinho, Vinho Verde, Portugal)

Pearls: Mud Crab - Smoked Eel - Scallop - Tuna

The next course gave full scope to Peter’s love of seasonal, heirloom vegetables. A complex winter salad of pickled rhubarb and cooked endive, beetroot, purple carrot, rosa radish and kohlrabi allowed individual tastes to come through. Sheep’s milk curd added a rich but not overpowering dairy element. The salad “dressing” came in two contrasting forms which added flavour and texture: breadcrumbs soaked in pomegranate juice and oven dried for 12 hours, and a syrup of pomegranate molasses. Edible violet flower gave a dramatic flourish to this brilliant composition.

The accompanying young, organic wine had a fruity notes of cherry and raspberry that complimented the dish well.

(Wine: 2011 Harham Winery “Rose Noveau” Hunter Valley)

The second seafood course saw slices of southern rock lobster, expertly poached to preserve its inherent sweetness and succulence. The lobster was also served as a “velvet,” a warm, well flavoured mousseline of smooth consistency. Sandwiched in between this mini tower construction were strips of baby squid “noodles” so delicate they almost melted in the mouth. The crowning glory, tapioca poached in smoked eel broth so as to resemble golden “caviar” not only added a bolder flavour but also injected a playful element to the dish. The vibrant acidity and muted oak of the dry white wine did full justice to this memorable dish. (Wine: 2008 Scorpo “Aubaine” Chardonnay Mornington Peninsula)

The course of coturnix quail breast was memorable as much for its firm but soft texture as its gentle gamey flavour. This result was achieved through initial roasting, then slow cooking sous-vide. Flavoursome accompaniments featured a base of chestnut puree topped with quinola, and walnuts. Sweetened pumpernickel, dried milk skin and truffle gave extra contrasting elements to this earthy composition. The paired red Burgundy, with its dark, concentrated fruits and robust smokiness was a fine match. (Wine: 2010 Thick as Thieves Pinot Noir Macedon Ranges)

Berkshire pig jowl proved a triumph of execution and ingenuity. Steamed in a combi over for 12 hours at 85 degrees, the resulting meat had an unctuous, melting quality. To avoid using the deep layer of skin and fat to make the crackling, a brilliant gastronomic conceit was employed: this was a mock crackling, a crisp, delicate toffee coating of maltose sugar, which did not stick in the mouth but shattered and dissolved on consumption. Prunes marinated in Pedro Ximenes sherry and cauliflower cream, perfumed with prune kernel oil, added to the warm, complex flavours of the dish. The chosen Reisling provided the necessary sweetness and acidity to complement the pork. (Wine: 2008 Fromm Spatlese Reisling, Marlborough, New Zealand)

A generous portion of Wagyu beef from David Blackmore proved a fitting climax to the savoury courses. The fillet, with a 9+ marbling score – the highest quality by the Japanese rating – benefitted from sous vide cooking to emphasise its soft, flavoursome qualities. It was then coated with faro, buckwheat hazelnut and Ezekiel which gave contrasting flavour and texture without overwhelming the meat flavour. Served with oxtail, morel and a pureed black pudding, this deeply earthy dish was as decadent as it was delicious. The full bodied red, with its intense bouquet of chocolate, palate of rich berry fruit with spicy long finish worked very well with this dish. (Wine:2008 Cascabel “El Sendero” Tempranillo, Malaren Vale)

The first dessert entitled “Jewels,” was inspired by the idea of finding precious items under snow. This palate cleanser comprised a fine textured granita, flavoured with lillipilli to give a sweet but slightly acidic taste, Partially covered were pink grapefruit segments, caramelised cranberries and pomegranate jelly amongst other delights. This was a playful, fun dish, expertly matched by a sweet, sparkling wine with the taste and aroma of red apples –an inspired choice indeed.

(Wine: NV Alain Renardat-Fache Bugey-Cerdon Demi Sec, Bugey, France)

Finally, a composite dessert featured a warm brioche, coated in a maltose crust and flavoured with vanilla and palm blossom. Caramelised white chocolate, amaretto cream, walnuts and prune sorbet provided other elements which harmonised well in taste, texture and temperature. The fortified sweet wine served with the dish was intense and luscious.

(Wine: Campbells Liquid Gold, Rutherglen)

Other aspects of the meal were also first rate. The four sourdough; breads – rye and spelt; polenta and sunflower, white and malted whole wheat – had crisp crusts and firm crumb. Coffee and petit fours were exemplary. The ceramic dishes had been carefully selected to showcase the food to maximum advantage.

The service was welcoming, friendly, attentive but unobtrusive. Unlike many top end restaurants it was also well informed, so staff had no trouble in answering questions about ingredients and cooking methods. This was no mean achievement given the variety and complexity of Peter Gilmore’s cooking. Amanda Yallop showed enthusiasm and great depth of knowledge in her role as sommelier. The matching flight on classic wines was expertly chosen, and described with admirable clarity and succinctness.

Dining at Quay was a real joy and utterly memorable. In a restaurant world where tasting menus have become ubiquitous and predicable, to produce an eight course meal as original, creative and satisfying as Peter Gilmore’s – the best degustation menu I have eaten – fully justifies the plaudits he has received. Dining in his restaurant was the highlight of my trip to Australia and will be an excellent reason for a return visit.