Hanging to try Peter Gilmore’s food but can’t quite raise the coin? The new eatery at the Opera House has you sorted
“By God, this is a beautiful place to eat a meal.” The thought is almost certain to strike at some point as you dine under the dominating, post-Brutalist arches of executive chef Peter Gilmore's new restaurant inside the Opera House sails. And that’ll be before you even see the food.
There are four ways to eat here: the restaurant downstairs; the cured and cultured section up a floor; the bar at the top, and if you’re in for a clean $650 per head, the chef’s table situated within the stunning, custom-designed kitchen. We’ve reviewed three of them (because who’s got $650 to spare? We’ll hop on a flight to Fiji instead), so you can make an educated choice as to how you’ll dine at one of the most celebrated locations in the world.
It turns out the best way to experience architect Jørn Utzon’s original vision for the Opera House is inside the restaurant. Here, none of those questionable, post-Utzon interior additions of wood and plastic are to be seen, as in the foyer and theatre areas. Instead, the entire space is open, the satisfyingly robust concrete beams exposed above you. You feel like you’re in a cave, or a 1960s futuristic vision of an alien craft, or – remember Innerspace? – a giant ribcage.
The restaurant at the base of the building is the best place to see all of this. Golden, shimmering Tom Dixon lighting and Aboriginal artworks tell you much about what you’re going to get here: seriously sophisticated food with an indigenous Australian accent.
The menu is à la carte rather than degustation, and for $80, you can be in and out within the hour if you go the pre-theatre option. Order unusually rather than safely, because if there is one thing Gilmore and chef de cuisine Rob Cockerill know how to do, it’s make the most of a humble ingredient.
Take the pumpkin starter, listed on the menu as “slow cooked heirloom pumpkin, Bruny Island C2 cream, Manjimup truffle, roasted seeds.” Sounds simple enough, right? Not quite. The pumpkin is like nothing you’ve ever tasted: all that slow cooking has created something sweet, buttery and deeply grassy – sorta like the best pumpkin it could possibly be. Toasted pepitas and flax seeds add crunch; the slightly salty cream offers seasoning and freshness, and the shaved seasonal Australian truffle provides the gentle – but not overwhelming – perfume of the earth. The flavours become etched with vanilla when matched with the 2010 Lillian Marsanne/Roussanne from WA.
Not crazy about veggies for a starter? Order the Lady Elliot Island bug, served with a Korean-style fermented chilli sauce that highlights all of the oceanic flavours of the fish. Little rounds of crunchy turnips and radishes crush between your teeth, adding texture and additional but contrasting heat.
In a different way, the King George whiting main lets the slightly salty, seriously tender fish speak for itself. The accompanying scallops are seared on one side only, so they keep their satiny feel in your mouth. Indigenous ice plant adds pleasing crunch, and pepper comes from native parsley. It’s unusual for a red wine to go so well with delicate fish, but the spice makes it possible here. The 2010 Nebbiolo from the Adelaide Hills, all fragrant plums, works a dream in this context and the heat doesn't dull its flavour.
You’ll be talking about the duck for many moons to come. It comes in two shimmering wedges, the skin caramelised with black miso paste that has a toffee-like consistency – it's sticky, tacky and totally amazing. Gilmore is the master of taking one thing, as he did with ice in his celebrated snow egg over the water at Quay, and showing you all the different things it can be. With the duck, it’s umami. There’s the deep flavour of the blushing pink fowl itself, caramel in the glaze, fermentation in the raw and pickled hispi cabbage, nuttiness from the freekeh and seaweed strewn across the top.
If you like things sweet, the crème caramel vs mille-feuille is just the ticket for dessert. That one thing here? Caramel. There’s caramelised ice, caramel shards and caramelised crumbs – sounds over the top, but the right balance of sweet and bitter is accomplished. The intriguingly named “chocolate cake from across the water” references the fact it was once a dish at Quay, albeit with a different name. There are eight layers including mousse, dacquoise and praline, but it’s the drama of watching the glossy black disk collapse as your server pours hot melted ganache over the top that will elevate the heart rate.
Pavlova is the signature dessert, though, and it’s served only in the restaurant. Hidden beneath a little dome of poached meringue dotted with piped Italian meringue and whipped cream is a teeny compote of fragrant, rose-tinted rhubarb. Thin fragments of classic meringue decorate the top to replicate the House's famous sails. It’s a celebration of delicacy and air, much like the design of the building in which it is served. If we’re talking about locality in a dish, well… you can’t get much more authentic than this.
Bennelong is a truly breathtaking restaurant. Whether you’re sitting by the windows overlooking the harbour or facing the restaurant, you’re getting one of the most envy-enducing views in the world. It’s affordable, too – around half the price of Quay, but with the same chef at the helm. (Both times we visit, Gilmore is on the pass). There are also plans for post-theatre suppers starting later in the year so you can enjoy the dishes late into the night. But really, it doesn’t matter how you dine here. Just make sure you do.
The cured and cultured section
Think of this as the middle-class area of Bennelong. Because there is no set menu, you can choose whether you’re going to eat like royalty if you want. But unless you’ve got the appetite of plankton, you’ll need to spend some coin to fill that belly – we’d say around two to three dishes a person including pud (around $55-$90). When eating here, you’re seated at a bar overlooking the chefs as they prepare your food. Luxury or distraction, depending on your taste. They are incredibly friendly, though. So ask them questions – like the waitstaff, they seem genuinely excited to be at your service.
Whatever you do, start with the yabbies. They sit in their shells upon a bed of saltbush (which, our chipper waitress tells us, is not to be eaten), though in actual fact, they’ve already been detached. Pick one up and place it upon one of the buckwheat pikelets in the accompanying basket. From the two pots in front of you, swipe on a lick of deeply fragrant lemon jam and another of cultured cream, fold the thing up and eat. This dish is practically a legend. The sweetness of the lemon enriches, rather than overwhelms, the flavour of the cool, crunchy yabby; the cream lightens the load, and the buttery crumb of the pikelet leads the whole thing to perfection.
The chicken salad is all about purity of flavour and contrasting textures: tender meat; gently spiced, house-made udon, and just-crunchy-enough palm heart. The raw sea scallops dressed with Dory caviar, crème fraîche, lemon jam and zest are about silk (from the cream and thinly sliced shellfish) and pop (from the roe and, at the end, a kick of citrus).
The steak tartare is a dissertation on umami. Dressed with the Korean undertones of fermented chilli paste, the smoke from the meat blends with the savour of julienned mushrooms, seaweed and sesame. Not to mention cultured barley and rye – which, crisp shards that they are after being soaked, dehydrated and roasted – add texture to an otherwise meat-heavy plate. It’s a big serve and just the thing if you need if you're after a more decent feed.
The cherry jam lamington is like something out of a Salvador Dalí painting. It arrives at the table literally smoking – liquid nitrogen has been used to turn coconut ice cream into the bits that encase the star attraction. The cubic shape within is actually sour cherry ice cream with a little sponge and a generous pour of chocolate ganache. It’s nubbly and sour from the cherries, smooth from the ice cream and rich from the chocolate – and those deceptive little shards actually melt on your tongue like snowflakes.
The wine isn’t cheap, but there’s plenty to be enjoyed by the glass. The 2014 Serafino white from Mclaren Vale will see you through your meal – it’s natural, so it’s had minimum intervention and is minerally and vaguely acidic, making it a perfect match to all that seafood. It’s Australian, too, which is what the menu here is all about – showcasing our country's copious produce at its very best, all in the surrounds of our most beloved man-made landmark. Not bad, Gilmore.
Fix up, look sharp and get yourself down to Bennelong for a drink already. Claim one of the four seats at the gleaming brass bar and you’ll feel like a monarch of the arts. A Henry and Mandy cocktail completes this picture of refined imbibing. It’s a sherry-based potion that reins in Orange Colombo’s spiced, bitter flavours with a splash of boutique American vermouth.
The desserts here are spectacular, but also cost $28 a pop. If that number gives you pause, order a cool-weather cocktail like the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie instead. It tastes like a deconstructed pie thanks to a wintry blend of walnuts, vanilla-scented rum, dark cherry puree and quince liqueur.
If you’re not accustomed to all this finery and just want a drinking wine, your sommelier will likely steer you towards a glass of the dry, gentle Serafino vermentino. You’d do well to trust him. It may be one of the cheaper glasses at $14 a pour, but it’s a crowd pleaser. If you’re not feeling the pull of a $12 craft brew like Tassie’s Moo Brew dark ale, or you generally stay off the sauce, there are six creative non-alcoholic cocktails that make you feel like you’re part of the fun club.
When it comes to snacks, what’s coming out of Peter Gilmore’s kitchens uses the sweet, savoury divide as a gastronomic skipping rope, refusing to be pinned down in either camp. Potent lemon flavours strike a high note among meltingly tender discs of scallop with light, tangy crème fraîche and barely a whisper of the sea in the tropical-hued Dory roe. The effect is so delicate and creamy it could almost pass for a dessert.
How about some breakfast for supper? A shiny toast rack bears the thin, crisp slices of barley and chestnut bread that are the building blocks of this share-friendly snack. A pot of restrained truffle butter and slender radishes brings the gifts of rich umami and fresh bite to the mix, but the unequivocal stars are translucent pink slices of sweet, delicate Australian-style prosciutto, which are draped over your extremely fancy toast.
In the midst of all this finery we also receive some of the warmest service in town. We’re sure pre-theatre hours will be manic, but in between there’s great chat to be had with the genial team manning the shakers and super-chilling your glass with liquid nitrogen. Forget the Concert Hall – you can get drinks and a show right here at the bar.
It’s not a cheap exercise to drink here, but when you’ve frocked up for a little high culture, you want an experience that matches the majesty of your surrounds. The Sydney Opera House finally has the bar it deserves.
Sydney Opera House
|Opening hours:||Lunch Fri-Sun noon-2pm; dinner Daily 6.30-10pm; pre-theatre daily 5.30, 6pm sittingsBar and Cured and Cultured counter Daily 5.30pm-late|