First published on 11 Sep 2010. Updated on 13 Apr 2011.
You won't find a restaurant in Sydney so burdened with the expectations of diners as Rockpool. There's something particularly special about the flagship restaurant. Maybe it's the thick white tablecloths; the plushly carpeted catwalk up the middle of the restaurant; the rubbernecking to see who's dining around you; or the incredibly professional service. Or maybe it's the food.
While Rockpool is still Neil Perry's restaurant, Perry has left the building - he's given full control of the kitchen to Phil Wood. And it's the amping up of the Chinese stuff that's at Rockpool of late that's giving the restaurant a newly honed edge. Take the 'rich and noble' lobster congee. This luxed-to-the-max Asian nanna dish sees hunks of lobster meat bound with rice porridge and festooned with a mix of anise-y peanuts, chilli and pieces of fried Chinese bread, all topped with tiny little curls of deep fried garlic.
If that's not enough of an indicator of where the restaurant's at, let us present exhibit B: goose gently braised in masterstock on a bed of fine noodles, stir-fried in XO sauce topped with green-lipped abalone and deep-fried chicken skin. Need more evidence? We'd like to call the Rockpool classic of Chinese roast pigeon to the stand. It's lightly coated in sweet, fragrant black vinegar sauce and sits on a piece of roasted eggplant stuffed with prawn paste.
Not that everything is Asian, mind you. If you want to up the ante even further with your fourth course (the menu at Rockpool is offered over five small courses or the eight-course grand tasting), the medley of beefs - fillet (go the wagyu for a $45 supplement), oyster blade and gelatinous, rich tendon - is outrageously rich with a rock sugar and soy sauce.
Not enough restaurants give you a bib. But if you order the stir-fried southern calamari with squid ink noodles and Schulz bacon, you'll get the biggest white linen bib in the land. And you'll need it - those noodles are slicker than the Gulf of Mexico. And while there's a bit of heat there from the chilli and coriander, it's more the richness from the ink and pork fat that give this dish its girth.
We should also mention the enormous wine list which, if you're not sure what you're looking for, can be a little bamboozling. Luckily, there are several crack sommeliers working the floor who are more than happy to do the matching for you. A word to the wise, though: if you haven't dragged your burlap sack with the big dollar sign on it to dinner, there's no harm or shame in asking the price of the wine. It's very easy to drink something totally delicious here that'll bankrupt you before you've even hit dessert.
Speaking of which, desserts by veteran Rockpool pastry chef Catherine Adams are, as always, excellent. The bombe Alaska has a surprisingly crisp meringue shell hiding a tangy pear sorbet, finished at the table with a generous dousing of Cognac. Which is on fire. Bibs, sauces on fire... how can you resist? Of course, there's always the more restrained date tart - so good it's been on the menu since 1984.
Rockpool isn't an everyday restaurant but it is an absolute must for every self-respecting food-loving Sydneysider. Veteran diners, if you haven't been to Rockpool lately, now's the time to go. 107 George St The Rocks (02 9252 1888).
At Marque (2009 Time Out Restaurant of the Year), there are no apologies. Mark Best and team present a tasting menu packed with more flavour, texture and intrigue than anything else you're likely to try in this fair city. And that's why we love it. It's not just the tasting menu either - the a la carte option is kicking goals, too. From wine to service to the seemingly little things like perfectly dressed salads and housebaked bread (love that rye and stout number), Marque proves time and time again why it's one of the best in town.355 Crown St, Surry Hills 2010. (02 9332 2225).
03 Berowra Waters Inn
Dietmar Sawyere's restaurant on the Hawkesbury River is as close to getting away from it all as you'll get within city limits. The menu changes all the time, but the idea is to select four, five or six courses from the extensive menu and choose your own adventure. Dishes will often be reliant on what's at the market that morning, or what Sawyere's fished out of the river, which guarantees about the freshest produce on the plate in town. Really do it in style and arrive by sea plane. Via East or West Public Wharves, Berowra Waters 2082. (02 9456 1027). Sydney by Sea Plane (1300 720 995).
Est is the type of restaurant you save for special occasions. And soon you're making up special occasions so you can visit more regularly. Flavours are always bang on and technique is always razor sharp - there's real discipline on the plate at est., thanks to Peter Doyle and his talented team. You'll find all the bells, whistles and anything else bright and shiny at this CBD star. 252 George St, Sydney 2000. (02 9240 3000).
The king of sweet ices and tiny flowers, Peter Gilmore's stunning food is real art on plate. It's an experience you're unlikely to forget in a hurry. While service can be a little up and down, the food is always gold-star good. Plus, there's not a bad seat in the house - every course is accompanied by stellar views of the harbour, Opera House and bridge. Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks 2000. (02 9251 5600).
Tetsuya's is a restaurant for people who love to eat, fuelled by chefs who really care about their craft. The courses that work really, really work, such as braised sea cucumber and wagyu oxtail with yuzu. If you're willing to spend some dough and can get a table, you'll eat some spectacular food. Go for a Saturday long lunch, we say. 529 Kent St, Sydney 2000. (02 9267 2900).
07 Guillaume at Bennelong
The sails of the Opera House hide one of the city's best restaurants and some very refined French cuisine indeed. Chef Guillaume Brahimi and co are firing on all cylinders at the moment. Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Circular Quay 2000. (02 9241 1999).
The Bécasse boys might be some of the toughest chefs in the biz but they sure as hell can they cook. Try the forgotten vegetables with pork jowl. And if you like your vegetables sans meat, Bécasse do an entirely vegetarian degustation. 204 Clarence St, Sydney 2000. (02 9283 3440).
Make no mistake: Universal is expensive. But you get what you pay for with outstanding service, brilliant food and a room that manages to maintain a breezy vibe despite being double cloth. And if you like, you can rock up and order dessert only, if you go later in the evening and sit at the bar. Republic 2 Courtyard, Palmer St, Darlinghurst 2010. (02 9331 0709).
One of the greatest collaborations in Sydney's fast-paced restaurant scene is that of sommelier Nick Hildebrandt and chef Brent Savage. Each on their own is a force to be reckoned with, but together, they're unstoppable. 320 Crown St, Surry Hills 2010. (02 9332 2344).
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