I’ve never been particularly drawn to iconic infrastructure. They always seemed a bit much, too much a tourist trap, too much a white elephant, too much ado about nothing. Case in point, I was the only one in our party of six to decide against going up the Empire State Building in New York. Sydney Opera House is a different story. My earliest memory of it was back in 2009, year one of living in Australia, to see the ballet. In more recent years, it has cemented itself as the site of some of my most memorable dining experiences. Cue my third post on Bennelong, a true favourite restaurant of mine, rightly housed in well, the opera house.
Despite many prior visits to Bennelong, this was my first time dining the Cured and Cultured menu at the bar. Having previously purveyed the menu (as one does, many, many times, prior to even arriving at the restaurant), I was excited at the prospect of choice. I do think that the way fine dining is consumed nowadays is shifting towards more casual formats of dining, like bar menus and a la carte, while still retaining the finesse that affords them the ‘fine’ label.
Tart of raw ocean trout $14
This visit to Bennelong was timed to signify the end of Shaun’s brief time in Sydney. He was here for a total of eight days, but I take a lot of pride in my city, for its seemingly infinite possibilities. However long you have planned to stay in Sydney, it will always feel just one day short of perfection.
We start off with a tiny tart, delicately shaped and filled to the top with chunks of trout and globules of golden trout roe. We both loved the butteriness of the tart shell, made even more decadent with such a fatty fish. Balancing it all out was the notes of yuzu, to cut through the fat on fat. At the time of ordering, it didn’t occur to me to order two, one for each of us. Thankfully the waitress seemed to understand portion sizes in relation to how ravenous we were, and two were brought out without asking.
Mooloolaba Yellowfin tuna $28
Shaun is my godbrother. Depending on which country or culture you hail from, the term might seem foreign. In a nutshell, he is the son of my godparents. But like many important things and important people, the meaning behind them is incapable of being encapsulated into single sentences.
Incidentally, it is this tuna that he deems as the ‘best thing’ he’s eaten throughout his entire trip in Sydney. A kohlrabi rémoulade with hints of anchovy make up the base of this dish, while three fresh strips of tuna drape across it like a shell. Adorning it all are crisps of black rice and laver, adding some sharp textures to a dish that would have been homogeneous otherwise. Its an umami sucker punch with each mouthful.
Salad of confit tomatoes $22
Growing up, we dabbled into everything from tennis to ballroom dancing to battling an obsession with Smackdown vs Raw 2006. We got along exceedingly well, I fit seamlessly into my godfamily’s lifestyle and I, weirdly enough, look a lot like them too. While I wasn’t for lack of love or family, being part of theirs was like finding another safe house, another place I could call home.
I hadn’t realised at the time of ordering that Shaun wasn’t all that partial to tomatoes. But the stracciatella more than made up for it, and even he couldn’t deny the pivotal role these tiny red rubies made in adding just enough tang to an otherwise almost-too-creamy dish. Once again, textures are not lost but found in the smoked almonds that also have a bonus wiff of earthiness, plus just a touch of sweetness from the sherry caramel. Bennelong’s dishes begin to seem almost formulaic, where ‘creamy’, ‘texture’, ‘rich’, ‘savoury’ and then some, make up a checklist to cross off.
Seared tartare of Rangers Valley wagyu $28
Making the decision to move to Australia wasn’t hard because of the prospect of having to build myself up all over again somewhere new. It was hard because of that, and because of the opportunity cost I paid for giving up the life I once had. And while I came to terms with the time I was going to lose with my family, I’m not sure I ever reconciled the time my family was going lose with me.
Having fond memories of Bennelong’s tartares, I knew this was one item I could not, not order. However upon arrival, I recognised immediately that it wasn’t the same tartare that I had had on previous occasions. This one was delicately seared, interspersed within horseradish cream and capers. The crispy beef tendon which crowned it had the crunch of prawn crackers and acted as taco vessels to scoop the meat into. As tasty as it was, it wasn’t as groundbreaking as its predecessor.
Salad of smoked eggplant $22
Like all Malaysians, we collectively share a penchant for the delicious and the exotic. My godmother is an exceedingly good baker. Memories at her house were punctuated with the arrival of people, collecting their cake orders. Her front doors might as well have been revolving, as residents of Petaling Jaya came and left, always happily, with their choice of warm baked goods, nestled within cardboard cake boxes. Many of my firsts were had within the confines of her kitchen, like my first churros, first homemade lasagna (with spinach pasta sheets rolled by hand) and first brownie cheesecake. I was home around the time of my birthday this year, and having her make my birthday cake like the good old days, sparks a joy in me that is timeless.
These last few dining excursions has made me realise, when left to my own devices, I will gravitate towards vegetables. This is the only explanation for us having a second salad dish. In this salad, individual falafel crisps were detectable but only very occasionally and there was crunch but nothing particularly distinct. The carby warmth of the pita bread was welcomed, especially when bread doesn’t start off the cured and cultured journey. All in all, decent, but not particularly memorable, other than invoking thoughts of the store-bought baba ganoush sitting in my fridge right now.
Five textures of raspberry
Shaun’s week in our harbour city flew by almost as quickly as my absence from Malaysia over the last nine years. I’d like to think he had a fulfilling time, traipsing the coast of Sydney, eating his fill of brunch and more, while exploring back alley streets in the surrounding suburbs. He’d probably tell you that I exhausted him to no end and he now needs a holiday for this holiday.
Desperate to order all the desserts yet wanting to practice some restraint, we ended up using an online coin flip generate to pick the dish to cap off our meal. Its ironic that the dish that actually has the word ‘texture’ in its name, turned out to be the only one of the night, without any. We generously counted the mousse shaped like clouds, ice cream, panna cotta-esque base and actual raspberries as four individual textures, despite the fact that they were all really one and the same. We’re not sure where the fifth went. As a result, I’d call this my least favourite dish of the night. I previously had Bennelong’s Five textures of mango which I think may have suffered from the same weakness but was markedly more masked for me because of how much I love mango.
Bonus, Blame Canada from Bar Luca $17
As contented as we both were after sharing a meal at Bennelong, Shaun’s happiness levels went off the charts when I jokingly suggested we go past Bar Luca (conveniently in the same neighbourhood) before heading home. As an icon of a different sort, I don’t think Blame Canada really needs an introduction; a generous meat patty cooked medium rare, maple glazed streaky bacon, American cheese and poutine sandwiched between a bouncy bun. I would type out the expletives he uttered as the burger continued to disappear into his mouth, but our parents read my blog (hi, Khai Ma!).
There’s something about me and something about Bennelong that, when united, sparks fly and magic just happens. Food would even be secondary to the conversation, the company, the air of the night, but it is precisely the food that greases the cogs to generate these memories to treasure forever. Each time I’m left with moments as warm and as hazy as the glow of the orbs within the dining hall. Orbs that adorn their lightstand from behind the Opera glass, looking out at the sea.