What does it take to earn the crown of Sydney’s finest diner? It’s not just a superlative location, because being a harbour city we are not deprived of beautiful places to eat by the water. Admittedly, at Quay, when the cruise ship finally pulls away from the Overseas Passenger Terminal to reveal the Opera House and a panorama that stretches from the Harbour Bridge to the CBD, it’s hard not to fall that little bit deeper for Sydney and all her aesthetic charms.
Being number one is not just about service that’s as smooth as Italian suede and as perfectly paced as a champion race horse – though it’s certainly a foundational element to the dining experience here.
And it’s important that once you have achieved the top spot on the dining dance card you don’t get complacent. Sydney is a city that thrives on the new, so if the time of double linens is over, whip the tablecloths off and embrace a new era of relaxed degustatory excess, where the collars are a little looser but the standards never drop.
Fine dining no longer ascribes to the idea that indulgence requires being fed into a stupor, which is why you can safely opt for an elegant six courses at executive chef Peter Gilmore’s world famous restaurant. Of course, if you’re here for a little excess, there’s always ten, which adds marron, truffles, and extra desserts to the mix.
No matter which way you steer you get to marvel at the monklike restraint in a dish of hand-harvested octopus, clams and scallops, anointed with soy and aged vinegar and dressed in seaweed for a convincing “au natural” affectation. From something barely augmented by human hands you then move on to a dish that packs the largesse of a limousine into a tiny package of intensely smoky eel cream, given textural backbone with sea cucumber crackling (the fancy cousin of the prawn cracker), walnuts and Italian caviar.
From the sublime to the rustic, an ancient purple corn variety from Peru (guesstimates give it a 4,000-year-old legacy) is ground down and cooked into the smoothest of polentas spiked with parmesan and chicken stock. A rich and sticky oxtail broth is the final umami KO punch. An unlisted break to proceedings heralds the arrival of slow fermented poolish crumpets with cultured cream and salmon roe, but then along comes a wobbling savoury custard run through with sweet mud crab meat and bolstered by an unapologetic bouquet of sea vegetables, seaweed and young garden greens.
There is no wrong choice between duck breast aged in-house for eight days; King George whiting fillets with butter poached squid noodles; or wobbling pork jowl as your final savoury heavyweight. However, depending on how much theatre you need with your dessert, consider the “moo”. Look, it’s no white coral (Quay’s famous, smoking, freeze-dried reef of white chocolate with feijoa ice cream and coconut) but the sweet little dish designed to look like cow hide with whipped cream and little chocolate biscuit “spots” conceals a downright delicious sundae of salt caramel dulce de leche, Jersey milk ice cream and prune purée.
It takes a lot to be the city’s preeminent fine diner, but Quay proves again and again that it deserves the mantle. The fact that its latest iteration has only made it a better dining experience goes to show that even when you’re at the top of your game, there are always new heights to scale. The king of Sydney fine dining still reigns supreme.