For more than two decades, Matt Moran’s fine diner Aria has gazed across the water toward the Opera House. A place of special occasions, milestone anniversaries and for the lucky few, a regular pitstop before a show. The hallowed halls, with their panoramic views and luxe wooden panelling, have been revered for longer than many of us have been able to buy a beer, so where does the litmus of luxury dining land these days, and how does it stand up to the up-and-comers that are shaking Sydney’s dining scene?
In life, we strive for balance. Whether it be in our relationships, in our work, our diets, it is one of those elusive creatures that social media and our mothers are always telling us to prioritise. There are very few times, however, where balance is actually achieved. The good news is, if you’ve got a few hours to kill (and a few hundred dollars to burn) you will find balance at Aria, where it is the name of the game. Each dish elicits a curious moment of “Hmm. Eh. Oh!” Bitterness, brine, salt, overt sweetness and wine pairings that are genius – every element has been considered. Too often a wine pairing at a degustation restaurant feels like an expensive and erratic waste, but even the “basic” pairing at Aria ($140 per person) takes dishes from good, to a symphony of flavour and texture.
An amuse bouche of delicately cured white fish atop a tapioca cracker, dressed prettily with chive flowers sets the tone and darn it, if that ain’t a sweet tune. It’s quickly followed by the first course of persimmon and tender slivers of sweet, golden beetroot blanketed over a little bomb of Pecora Dairy cheese curd. Subtle and gratifying, this is the equivalent of catching a cute stranger’s eye at a bar. The real flirting begins when plump and caramelised Abrolhos Island scallops come along, with vinegary artichoke hearts, earthy salsify purée and crumbled morcilla, a “type of Spanish sausage” – a rather diplomatic way of describing blood sausage.
Uber-tender Maremma duck is brined and glazed in pomegranate syrup for four days prior to its arrival on the plate and is served with a shockingly bitter braised witlof. We are glad to find balance comes courtesy of sweet halved figs. The real MVP, however, is a deboned duck rib meat. It's crisp and brings to mind all those good bits of a Sunday roast: woody chestnuts; sticky pan juice umami; that crisp layer that comes from patiently rendered fat. To include this often neglected morsel is a stroke of utter genius. You can have the breast, we’ll take the rest.
The crescendo of the savoury dishes is a deeply safe beef fillet. In comparison to its predecessors, it feels extraordinarily dull to us: the accountant who wandered into your favourite dive bar and sent you a drink. Pressed potato galette, beef, bone marrow butter and an unnecessary gesture of green chicory leaf is there to tick a box and be quickly forgotten. We’ve seen this a million times before, in one way or another. Where’s the creativity? Oh, well.
Redemption, as is so often the case, comes by way of dessert. A palate cleanser of makrut lime soda has to be one of the most delicious and refreshing things we have tasted in a long while: an inspired yet simple blend of lime leaves, balanced with a touch of sugar and sparkling water. Bottle this stuff and sell it, gin to be added at purchaser's discretion.
A disc of almond tuile teeters on top of a still-warm shell of choux pastry, through which a pleasingly thick vanilla and pear custard bursts out of with a very satisfying amount of pressure. Grainy poached pear segments are thrown in for freshness and, as if it couldn’t get any better, a cruise liner blows its foghorn and disembarks while we digest.
So, where do we land? It depends really on what you consider a great dining experience. Some folks might fall over themselves to spend three hours eating while chefs plate little bites, assembled of course with tweezers, while enjoying an extraordinary view. Others will find just as much, if not more, joy in a loud, more laid-back environment with a bit more fun, where rules do not apply and creative muscles are flexed.
There is an untouchable quality to restaurants like Aria, which have earned and maintained their status as 'the best' in Sydney for scores of years. Dinner for two could easily cost you close to 1,000 bucks, tiny flowers are abundant on dishes, and when there are so many chefs who have come up in venues like this and gone on to do great, less stuffy things, it can feel frustratingly slow watching the changing of the times. That said, there will always be room for Aria. Jaw-dropping views, a wine list that's as long as your arm, and true Big Night Out energy.