Bennelong

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I never really thought I would go back to a Peter Gilmore restaurant after one particularly lacklustre experience at Quay in 2012. But from the moment it was announced that he had won the tender for the space in the Opera House, I knew I would be eating my words. On a work-related mission some time last year, my ex-colleagues and I made a trip to the Opera House to check out the space for a client, which was vacant at the time. It was completely barren, stuffy and smelt like an uninhabited home.

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None of this detracted from the magnificent interior. The kind of sight which made you weep because you’re a law student and you don’t know the first damn thing about architecture.

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This was only bested by the view on the outside. Rose-tinted glasses is an expression that comes to life when you’re looking out through the crystal clear glass of the Opera House onto the harbour. It’s dinner for mom and I tonight, so we’re not graced with pearls cast into the sea by the rays of the sun or the ability to watch a breeze blow from indoors.

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But it makes for a really cosy feeling on the inside where warm lights throws shadows in all the right places. Everyone looks fancy, everyone looks at home. As I slink into the room in a little black something, Bennelong makes me feel like the best version of my true self.

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A word of advice, getting a booking at Time Out’s Best New Restaurant is a vicious free-for-all against the rest of Sydney. Get in early, I checked in about a week to two weeks in advance and the best I could do was a 9.30 pm booking. A couple of back and forth calls later, this was amended to a much more reasonable 6 pm but it would have to be a pre-theatre menu at $105 for three courses ($80 for two) with much more limited selection.

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Single origin bread is warm and crusty. Butter has the texture of whipped cream and the colour of mustard. You tell yourself that you don’t fill up on bread when you’re paying upwards of $100 but you do it anyway.

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Slow cooked heirloom pumpkin Bruny Island C2 cream, Manjimup truffle, roasted seeds

We did our homework before arriving on the ever so informative I’m Still Hungry food blog (Michael seriously makes the hum drum task of food blogging, an art form). He lauded the pumpkin dish as the best pumpkin dish he has ever had and I do not hesitate to agree. An incredible amount of flavour is condensed into that puddle of seemingly innocuous cream to which the golden slice rested upon. I’ve truly never tasted anything like it. Weirdly enough the truffle as great as it is, actually plays the supportive role it was always meant to, and simply adds to the dish without hogging the limelight.

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Smoked Blackmore Wagyu tartare fermented chilli paste, puffed grains, mushrooms, sesame, seaweed, egg yolk

At first glance, I’m made to think that my wagyu tartare is missing its wagyu as it rather looks like an egg yolk is resting in a pile of crushed up autumn leaves. But the treasure pokes through effortlessly as you begin to mix the plate in. The lighting at Bennelong is dim and sensuous, I feel like I’m stripping the clothes off my entree to reveal bloody red meat.

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“Did fine dining restaurants just discover deep fried onions?” – Mom

True enough it’s a big plate of textures but having so much crunch and so much “this tastes cooked” really balances out the rawness, I think even the most squeamish of people would enjoy this particular tartare. It’s highly well-seasoned (although I didn’t detect chilli paste) with a slight Asian persuasion, Kim’s yukhoe actually comes to mind. Bursting the egg yolk is one of life’s greatest satisfactions and coating it all in it really rounded the dish off.

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Steamed snapper fillet, white turnips, golden orach, umami butter

The snapper is my main and it’s beautiful! Fish sometimes looks as boring as it tastes but the little flowers (and golden orach?) are placed on top of the skin-side of the fillet setting the scene of a mossy rock garden. Turnips are great but I’m Miss Wishful in hoping they were actually scallops. The actual fish was cooked well but not particularly outstanding after such flavourful starts. The umami butter makes a world of difference but use it sparingly or there might not be enough to go around. This dish particularly reminded me of Le Bernardin.

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Ancient grains, eggplant, mushrooms, hazelnuts

Going vegetarian isn’t usually on our minds when we’re giving fine dining a good swing. But our choices are limited tonight and mom isn’t partial to veal so she opts for the ancient grains. After the stellar pumpkin though, we’re more excited with this choice than disappointed at the lack of options. It turned out to be the best decision we made all night. If the tartare was buzzing with texture, this dish was overflowing with it, against my mom’s protests of “I can’t even tell if they put sand in this” (??). The cream at the bottom is again some pretty magic stuff and is mixed in well to prevent the grains from being overly dry. When we were getting our order taken down, the waiter semi-likened it to a risotto. He was completely off the mark but I don’t hold him a grudge because truly, there isn’t really anything else like this that I could have compared it to. Again, I know it sounds unexciting on the menu but I cannot recommend this any higher.

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Red oak leaf lettuce, cabernet dressing $10

Feeling a bit lacking we get a side order of some lettuce which, well, tasted like lettuce. We didn’t even realise it was there until the end having forgotten and mistaking it in passing as a pot plant. This was $10 I could have spent elsewhere.

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Chocolate cake from across the water

After carb-loading, mom insists we get a dessert to share. One of the main reasons my Quay experience many years ago wasn’t fun was because my Eight-texture Chocolate Cake was served too cold for the iconic “sinking” to happen as the hot chocolate sauce meets cake. I was determined to redeem my moment so we order the one playfully called “Chocolate cake from across the water” which is exactly Quay’s signature.

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I’m going to be honest and up-front about the fact that I probably did not taste eight textures. I just tasted one damn good cake. But here’s the supposed break-down (thanks again Michael!)

1) Chocolate mousse
2) Caramel ganache
3) Vanilla & chocolate ganache
4) Chocolate & hazelnut dacquoise
5) Milk chocolate praline
6) Chocolate caramel cream
7) Dark chocolate disc
8) Hot chocolate sauce

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Leaving Bennelong that night, I couldn’t help but laugh. Deep, belly laughs that shook the contents of the food I had just devoured. I don’t like being preachy and I’m a cynic at best. But the air is clear, the weather is refreshing and I just had one of the nicest meals this year with my best friend, my mom.

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After travelling so much, I got into the habit of focusing on the bad points of Sydney and comparing it to the best parts of New York, Tokyo and Stockholm. A lot of the time it was because I felt restricted by my studies, my relationships with people or just daily stresses, I wanted to get out to go somewhere. Anywhere.

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That night surrounded by Sydney’s most famous and clichéd icons, I never felt more free.

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samanthawxlow

4 Comments

  1. Great post Sam! Great to hear that Bennelong is the restaurant from where you’d rather be, whilst others look onwards in envy 😛

    With regards to your disappointing cake experience the first time around…very unfortunate. You did have the option to send it back, but I suppose the taste would have been the same. Still, the theatre is part of the experience!

    Oh, and thanks for the links & complimentary words – you’re too kind 🙂

    • Hahaha I wasn’t the self-entitled foodie back then that I am now.. But in all seriousness, I think I didn’t really understand what was happening with the cake until after one of my dining partners exclaimed that something was wrong.

      I really wish they had the dory on the pre-theatre menu after reading about it on your post!

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