Rockpool (est. 1989), redefined the perception of Australian cuisine forever. It provided the confidence to leave behind our clichéd culinary baggage, push through the staid conventional boundaries, and to stand proudly behind Modern Australian cuisine in a global context. Chef Neil Perry forged the road to sustainability by embracing small artisan producers, with whom he shared the same commitment. The food had both style and substance, and the renowned service surrounding it was beyond just an ideal, it truly meant something to share it with diners. The success led to the dream of expansion becoming a reality, although never at the expense of core group philosophy.
The reasonably priced nine ($145) or ten ($165) course degustation menu is broken into three sections, with the option of matching wines ($100 and $120 respectively). The ‘beginning the journey’ involves a series of set snacks before ‘your choices’ of a main and dessert. The palate cleanser and petit fours are inclusive, with optional cheese course ($12) also available. Starting with delicate chicken wing ‘lollipops’, in luscious egg batter and copious amounts of konbu butter, work an absolute treat. The dish strips any formality away, with the diner picking up the food, leaving you wanting more.
The same fate befalls the moreish prawn katsu, coriander, chilli, and rice rolls; a Vietnamese take lushed up with the chicken parfait providing the dish a rich mouth feel, although the heat note could have been tweaked a fraction higher for my liking. Next, the nuance of spanner crab mixed with tabasco mayonnaise, sitting on a steamed bun brushed with hoi sin and a base of soy bean cream, is clearly a more refined dish. The intelligent progression of building flavours and textures noticeably continues throughout the snacks.
A deceptively simple Chirashi zushi (sashimi scattered over rice) of tuna, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, diced squid, black and white sesame seeds, avocado, compressed cucumber, yuzu jelly, and kimchi, is a showcase of both precise cutting techniques and perfect harmony. Coorong yellow eye mullet, with diced squid, apple, shaved radish, and red date infused sauce, further emphasises how respectful Rockpool is with seafood. Meanwhile, an intriguing mapo dofu naturally sets, with soya milk and chilli oil, for between six to eight minutes on an exquisite tabletop grill. The avocado puree, sea urchin, minced beef spiced with Sichuan pepper, and ‘eight precious herbs’, bring a rich aromatic and flavoursome and aspect which is entirely worth the wait.
The honey spelt bread, with house made butter and ricotta, and roasted tomato juices arrives a little later than I would prefer in the order of things, but is exceptional nonetheless. A humble yet perfectly poached organic hen’s egg, sitting on a light potato blini, and coated with a luscious allemande sauce under crisp potato netting becomes a playful and clever idea. However, the generous garnish of Sterling Caviar, combined with the oozy texture of the yolk, elevates the dish to one of those rare culinary moments.
The theatre of the superb pasture-raised Burrawong Gaian deboned spatchcock, deep-fried before being carved tableside, is both an inspired and nostalgic touch. The goji berry and glutinous rice stuffing, with reduced chicken stock and lotus seed, is completely on point with the dish. It invokes the core skills of kitchen technique and convivial interaction, the very epitome of hospitality, in one shared gesture. With full Gueridon service all but extinct, it is nice to see a restaurant of this standing pay homage to this lost art through the joy of outstanding produce.
Impeccably cooked pigeon zheng shui dan with cashews, prawn stuffed eggplant and ‘strange flavour dressing’, is anything but ‘strange’. It has a traditional Szechuan sesame-based sauce, with the sour elements balanced by sugar and salt, working beautifully within the dish. A parcel of pristine bass grouper, wrapped in ginger then steamed, sits on a bed of buckwheat mixed with macadamia nuts, dried cauliflower, silken tofu, and scampi. The dish is a fragrant textural symphony, elevating this tasty species way beyond its deep-sea origins. Subtle jasmine smoked partridge, with lotus root and thoughtfully layered with chicken parfait and bone marrow poached quince sauce, is a far simpler, but equally a dish balanced beautifully. The roasted South Australian lamb, sitting on a bed of Job’s tears (grains), shiitake, green beans, red date and chilli condiment, black tea and dried nori, lacked the same impact, but only by comparison.
Tonight’s service is bordering on perfect, indeed a thing of rare beauty. These astutely trained and personable professionals are intuitive throughout, even occasionally playful, when the prevailing mood of the table dictates. The impeccably attired and well-informed waiters, attentive to the smallest details, but never intrusive, were entirely faultless. Wine Service did not miss a beat, being particularly well versed of arguably the most significant list in the country. If owner Neil Perry had witnessed this well-orchestrated symphony of graceful, at the same time purposeful movement, I imagine he would be immensely proud, perhaps even considering that his vision was complete.
The palate cleanser, Moscato custard, with streusel biscuit crumb, and rhubarb sorbet, reads heavier than the reality. What it may have missed, the more technical vacherin of pandan custard with coconut parfait, jasmine sorbet and lime granite sitting in a pristine meringue shell more than covers. ‘Strawberries and cream’ (ricotta parfait, coriander sorbet, compressed strawberries, compote, and crème Chantilly) is very playful, but sophisticated take on an old favourite.
Perhaps the most interesting dessert is sweet potato braised in soy caramel, with lemon curd, miso ice cream, sesame seed tuilles and candied shiso. It is a risky combination, but immensely rewarding through flawless execution and cohesion. Valrhona chocolate mousse, with macadamia nut praline and ganache, coffee soaked prunes, citrus ice cream, chocolate tuilles, and caramelised sheets, is clearly the richest of the desserts. The timeless and legendary date tart as petit fours, is an inspired finish, and a lovely nod to the past.
Twenty five years on, the Rockpool Group flagship restaurant with Chef Phil Wood now at the helm, is as aspirational and as strong as ever. The legacy of this restaurant is most assuredly guaranteed, with no level of detail taken for granted. This I believe is the true measure of its greatness. Whilst Rockpool should not be any different without the Head Chef at the pass, it still shines as brightly as ever. The stunning new heritage location is a fitting home for this truly world-class restaurant of immense standing and excellence. Bravo Neil Perry and Phil Wood, and every single member of that well polished team of professionals who provided an unforgettable experience, extravagantly showcasing the Rockpool Group philosophy.
11 Bridge Street, Sydney
Monday to Saturday 6pm to 10.30pm, Monday to Friday 12pm to 2.30pm
Reservations: (02) 92521888