Dining at Aria will make you fall back in love with Sydney. Sure, she may have wronged you in the past (house prices, transport woes) but in the warm light of this famous dining room you take back every bad word you’ve ever said about her. It’s a kind of romantic alchemy forged by the floor-to-ceiling glass – the only thing between you and the gentle glow of the Sydney Opera House – and six flawless courses from the chef Joel Bickford.
How can you not feel flattered by a lavish opener of yellow tail slices, as translucent as a Botticelli angel, regally ornamented with sterling caviar and crisp pork jowl pieces? It’s three textures of luxury served on an almond pil pil made with fish stock, garlic oil and sherry vinegar.
Your head will already be a little turned and things are just warming up. Chef Bickford’s culinary concerto embraces dramatic change in a way that would put the Four Seasons to shame, backing up his opening luxe tableau with an ode to the humble carrot. The veg is smoked, cooked in a water bath of carrot juice and seaweed and then grilled with garlic oil, and served with sheep’s curd, a dab of liquorice gel, black olive, and flax crackers for an extra dose of autumnal crunch. You really don’t expect something so rustic to follow from caviar, but that’s the magic of the tasting menu here.
A dish of golden blue-eye trevalla fillets is a nod to Bickford’s time with Stefano Manfredi at Bel Mondo, served with a riff on a pepperonata that balances the sweetness of capsicum with a salty caper cracker, herbaceous basil oil, smoked almonds and little razorback prawns. Pork belly gets a surf-and-turf makeover with green lip abalone and an intense black vinegar broth; while New Zealand venison loin is like a country forest still life, paired with quince, beetroot and coffee.
The tasting menu will shift with ingredients and seasons, so perhaps starring roles may yet be given to the medieval fantasy that is cured goose breasts from Armidale that they hang in the restaurant for a month and then serve in thin ribbons like a prosciutto with pear, macadamia cream and a mead gel. They should also make a place for the pink snapper, cooked in butter and doused in a sauce that’s so delicious you’ll be rendered speechless – your mouth has better things to do. They deep fry the snapper bones, make a stock and then add it to a pot with lots of garlic, ginger, brown sugar and white wine. Fresh coriander and lemongrass add a very subtle South East Asian influence – it the best sauce we’ve tried all year.
In a city increasingly fixated by casual eats, Aria still proudly wields the ceremonial mace for fine dining. You see it in their wine list that starts at $17 a glass for an Italian trebbiano (though you won’t regret the money you spend on the Cobaw Ridge chardonnay, which tempers the fullness of orchard fruit and citrus with a little savouriness), and in the classic final act featuring a kind of geologically inspired presentation of chocolate textures, like layers of the earth, with Cognac, more cocoa and chestnut. When you’re dining here, you’re getting the best of everything Sydney has to offer. How could you not fall hard?