For years the Bennelong site at the Opera House has been home to one failed restaurant after another. Then in 2001, French born, bred and trained chef Guillaume Brahimi came along and opened what has come to be one of Sydney's most deified restaurants. And doesn't he promote it?! He's got his own column in the newspaper every few weeks, teaches cooking classes by day, talks on the radio about new season truffles... how on earth does he find time to actually cook in his restaurant?
Unsurprisingly, Guillame's food and service ooze class, but the truth is, both lack spark. To dine here anonymously and then to do so with a VIP offer very different experiences. For VIPs Guillame really throw on the schmooze in so many marvellous ways - glasses of champagne with the finest of fine bubbles, waiters bending to your every whim, wish or desire. That's not to say that as a regular punter you'll be invisible, but you sure as hell won't be getting velvet fizz or friendly waiter conversation unless you're paying for it. The food, though, stays pretty much the same level no matter who you are - very good, but not magical.
A slice of salmon smoked in-house, topped with a wodge of caviar, tiny wee dots of crème fraiche, croutons, a tiny dice of shallot and a single corner of toasted brioche is a delight, but we wish more toast was offered as we sit there with half a plate of salmon and nothing to put it on. That's pretty rudimentary service for a restaurant pitched at the calibre of diner it is and charging the prices it does (the degustation is $180 - that's only $15 less than Tetsuya's).
But then comes the crisp, pan fried John Dory fillet served with two perfect little Dutch carrots and one half spear of asparagus on the fi nest, silkiest carrot and coriander puree you can imagine. It very quickly puts the lacklustre service out of mind (the Dory dish has since been upgraded and is now served with pea puree, tarragon emulsion and pommes allumettes - that's thick cut chips to you and me, folks).
Strange but true: tonight it's the cheese trolley that is the most special thing about visiting Guillame. Cheeses from all over the globe are wheeled over and you can choose however many you like before they're served with fruit toast wrapped in a linen napkin and Duchy oat biscuits. Dessert-wise, Guillame does the classics beautifully. Passionfruit souffle is light as air and served in a little copper pan with creme chantilly (that's whipped cream and sugar). And they also have some of the best selection of petits fours in town like pyramids of mandarin jelly and the most puffy, light madeleines.
The room itself, deep within the Opera House is oh-so spectacular - high ceilings and plush carpets mean beautifully low acoustics and there's not a bad seat in the place. But despite these things, we're not made to feel special - everything feels perfunctory like we should be privileged to be in the restaurant at all. That's unexpected. In Michelin-starred restaurants in France maybe. But not in Sydney.