Tetsuya Wakuda is a humble man, despite worldwide culinary acclaim; yet the weight of unrelenting expectation that surrounds his iconic restaurant must be at times a difficult master to appease. Fortunately, the calibre of Chef De Cuisine’s such as Martin Benn and Darren Robertson, have largely assisted in maintaining the consistent level of excellence, allowing it to maintain an unbroken three hat run between 1992 and 2010. The controversial decision by Terry Durack in the 2011 Good Food Guide to only award two hats with a score of 17.5 shocked the local culinary industry, but apart from the promotion of talented Luke Powell to Chef De Cuisine, little else appears to have changed. Meanwhile, Waku Ghin (its fledging alter ego), opened to much acclaim at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, raising the prickly but pertinent question of whether Tetsuya’s had regrouped, or amidst the distraction of expansion, had slipped a fraction further.
Service starts promisingly enough, with far less ‘up selling’ of the optional oysters and pre-dinner bubbly than on previous visits, and the early arrival of various breads and truffle butter is timely. It is a personal preference, but the latter would be enhanced by just a touch of seasoning. The first course of chilled cucumber soup, served in a martini glass, with a quenelle of sheep yoghurt ice cream and aesthetic oil drops looks sharp, and whilst effective as a palate stimulus, just falls short of setting the expectant high tone for the evening. The pristine Yellow Fin tuna that follows is overtaken by the roasted shishito peppers, which impart a smoky note that is a tad too prominent for my liking. This inadvertently undermines the produce which underpins the dish. The first real “wow” moment arrives with the visually stunning marinated NZ scampi, garnished with avruga, set in a bowl of silky avocado soup. This dish is an inspired example of perfect balance, texture and seasoning.
The signature confit of Petuna ocean trout arrives, but is sadly without its usual lustre. The portion size is noticeably reduced from my three previous visits, and the texture on this particular occasion is extremely disappointing in comparison. The bed of celery and apple is an underwhelming variation, with the accompanying salad far too acidic, and the sum of the dishes’ various parts not sufficiently cohesive. In perhaps a symbolic epitaph, the matching wine arrives conservatively five minutes later, similar to the much earlier request for more bread, which belatedly arrives with no butter on the table some fifteen minutes later. These may appear to be just small details, but they should never exist, let alone compound at this level, especially when the latter occurred on my previous visit. Confusion over the removal of glasses and requests for water top-ups further contribute to some disjointed service on the night, which in fairness, immediately improves once the experienced Jerry Jones assumes control.
Announced as a new addition, the fillet of John Dory, with smoked garlic and surprisingly bland pine mushrooms, did not fully deliver on its promise and clearly would have benefited from some further development. The freshness of the fish was not entirely conveyed in the texture, or in the overall composition of the dish. In total contrast, the braised ox tail with sea cucumber, sitting neatly on a disk of lotus root, is absolutely faultless. Falling apart with just a gentle nudge of the cutlery, it is a complete dish in every aspect, and affirmation that unfashionable cuts can achieve breathtaking moments on the plate.
The pancetta wrapped quail breast, with crispy sprouts providing a nice textural counterpoint, is seasoned to perfection, but perhaps is just lacking a ‘wetter’ element to bring the dish together. The simplicity of the slow-roasted duck breast with smoked eschallots & foie gras, whilst not the most challenging combination, is extremely comforting for good reason and safely matched with the 2008 Felton Road Pinot from the $95 flight of particularly well selected matched wines. The de-boned rack of lamb is an exquisite piece of produce, elevated by the eggplant and white miso, but it is the execution that really shines through.
The deconstructed tarte tatin in a shot glass is the most innovative dessert I have seen at Tetsuya’s, and its pairing with sorbet of unique pione grapes is quite inspired. Neatly layered, the marinated peach with peach granita sounds like overkill, but it has a luscious texture that balances particularly well with the cleansing element. Clearly, desserts which have always been the weakest element of the degustation, have finally turned a long awaited corner. The penultimate chocolate pavé with cream cheese ice cream is an exercise of pure unapologetic decadence, with only the cinnamon twigs momentarily punctuating the divine largesse at play. A very sophisticated interpretation of chai mochi is a nice variation as petit fours, and coffee previously a no-go zone, is markedly improved and served stylishly in a hand pottered cup, replete with thumb grooves.
With the 12 course journey complete, on balance and judging against its best, Tetsuya’s is not delivering the stellar experience it is renowned for. The seamless service, once without peer, has been an issue on my last two visits, and it is hard to dismiss any of the legitimate issues raised by the 2011 SMH Good Food Guide or Restaurant Magazine World’s 50 Best, which progressively slipped Tetsuya’s to a second tier rating of 58 (having peaked at 4 in 2005). No question that Chef De Cuisine Luke Powell has substantially strengthened the savoury and dessert elements, but the now dated and austere interior, like the signature dish, is desperately in need of some rejuvenation. The challenge of bringing about meaningful change, and ensuring it remains relevant, rests solely with Tetsuya Wakuda. As Tony Bilson successfully demonstrated by seizing the opportunity at his flagship with some bold and innovative thinking, in my opinion, time has now come for the great man and this much loved icon to inspire us all over again.
529 Kent Street, Sydney
Tue to Sat 6 to 11pm, Sat 12-3 pm