In July of 2020, at the age of 63, Neil Perry announced he was retiring, after roughly 40 years in the game. For many, the news that one of Modern Australian cuisine’s founding fathers was stepping back from his role as culinary director of Rockpool Dining Group – a restaurant empire that encompassed 80-odd establishments across the country – came as something of a shock. But some people, it seems, just can’t stay away for too long.
One year and a bit later, after a gruelling stretch that saw the celebrity chef feeding thousands of disadvantaged people, hosting online cooking classes and pivoting to takeaway, Perry and his signature ponytail are back in the kitchen at his latest (and reportedly final) venture, Margaret. It is his first venue to date without any financial partners and, in many ways, his most personal project yet.
It feels very much like a family affair. Step inside and Perry’s daughter, manager Josephine Perry Clift, might be the first to greet you. Look towards the open kitchen, and you’ll spot executive chef Richard Purdue on the pass, who began working alongside Perry nearly 30 years ago as an apprentice at Rockpool. Scan the cocktail list, and you’ll discover the perfect Martini was “quintessential” to Margaret, Perry’s late mother, after whom the restaurant is named. Seems only fitting, then, to start with one.
The bar has assembled an adventurous collection of small-batch Australian vermouths and gins, the wildest of which might be a mixture of Regal Rogue Lively White and a gin by Seven Seasons containing native green ants that are harvested in the Northern Territory. When it lands in front of you at precise tundra temperature, with a crack of black pepper for added grit and a side of fat Sicilian olives, you get the sense that Mum would have been proud.
While the menu makes no mention of her aesthetic sensibilities, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t be proud of the dramatically spotlit $5 million dining room, with seats for 120 people (and 50 more outside), kitted out by Caon Studio and Acme & Co in varying neutral tones, textural accents and opulent finishes. Or of the staff, who work the floor with urgency and professionalism, in billowy gowns, pressed chinos and sneakers as white as the clientele’s hair and teeth.
The cooking is pure Perry: Mediterranean and Asian flavours refracted through a contemporary Australian lens, bolstered by namechecked produce that’s some of the finest in the land. So a murky, umami-rich Chinese olive and preserved radish paste subtly intensifies stubby king brown mushrooms, gently kissed by the wood fire. A crudo of chubby Flinders Island scallops, each as sweet as crème anglaise, leans only on finger lime, crunchy sea blite and jarringly yellow olive oil for acid, texture and fat.
Even when the menu advertises bolder flavours like XO or red curry butter, they register as elegant and more delicate than your palate might expect, careful not to overshadow the likes of pristine coral trout caught by Ben Collison in northern Queensland, or a crusty, craggy beef fillet from CopperTree Farms. And while too much sesame and rice wine dressing drowns out a side of charry cos lettuce hearts, twice-cooked potatoes shine with simplicity, juxtaposing crispness and creaminess with virtuoso skill.
In the lead-up to opening, Perry often referred to Margaret as a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’, which must be taken with a grain of salt considering the neighbourhood we’re talking about here is Australia’s wealthiest postcode. While nearly every dish punches in at less than $50, and there are solid bottles of wine to drink at around $85, it is difficult to imagine mere mortals popping in for a meal here on a regular basis.
If there’s one reason to return, however, it might just be the ‘Memories of a Mirabelle Tart’ – a dessert that Perry tasted many moons ago on a trip to Lyon, which inspired the iconic date tart that he and his former pastry chef Lorraine Godsmark made famous at the original Rockpool in 1989. It is as confident a display of pure technique today as it was back then – all bronze crust, silky custard, chewy prunes, nothing more – and, in many ways, a microcosm of dinner at Margaret. It may not hold much in the way of surprises, but it sure knows how, and whom, to please.