Saturday, 13 June 2009

An Evening at The Rocks to Remember

With Sydney being a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, as well as perhaps the most popular international gateway into Australia, surely it should have its share of fine dining restaurants, as I'm sure the two cities don't like to be outdone by each other. Find a restaurant I did; in the midst of the historic neighbourhood of The Rocks was Rockpool, which is actually part of the Rockpool family of restaurants in Sydney (3) and Melbourne (1). (Coincidentally, Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne's Southbank was one of the shortlist choices between me and my friend; I'll admit the AUS$140 20oz abalone "steak" was really tempting me.) Boasting of its sparticular use of fresh seafood in its evidently Mod Oz menu, and with only a day and a morning left before I had to fly back to Canada, I had to give this place a try. Checking the website at my hostel before deciding to go I discovered two menu options:
  • A $120/person, 4-course tasting menu, which allowed for latitude in choice of dishes per course; and
  • A $195/person, luxurious fixed 9-course tasting dinner.
I was tempted by the 9-course feast, but in the end I stuck with the 4-course dinner, as I was in the mood to pick and choose the dishes I wanted to try. Even with four courses, however, there were still other bite-sized teasers that played with my taste buds and reassured me that I chose a good place for dinner.

The first of two canapes (aka amuses-bouche) was pureed zucchini in a crispy phyllo cup topped with Parmesan cream; yes, I was served more than one canape, a situation I'd not encountered beforehand but nonetheless gladly took and enjoyed. The first canape was light, the mild sweetness of the zucchini complemented by the savoury and slightly sour zing of the cream, and the soft mixtures contrasting with the delicately crispy phyllo.

The second canape offered to me was a goat cheese tortellini. This one tasted richer and more savoury than the zucchini phyllo, and though the flavouring was nice, my one criticism would be that it was not al dente, as I believe pasta should be. In this case, cooking it so that it still retains a firm bite should be more possible without any meat filling and the associated risk of undercooking the meat.

At last my first course arrived, an abalone and drunken chicken salad on fine noodles.The Chinese influence was evident in this dish with the drunken chicken and the bed of noodles. The use of fresh abalone, however, is less common in Chinese cuisine, but the Australians have taken advantage of using fresh versions plucked out of their own waters; fresh or dried, abalone is a pricey morsel of seafood. (Remember that $120 abalone "steak" I mentioned earlier?) The salad was light and clean, with the jelly beneath the very thin slice of lotus root countering the salad with a strong bang to it.

For my second course I chose the stir-fried southern calamari with back bacon, a pan-seared scallop and squid ink noodles. I'd heard of squid ink being used for cooking, though this isn't easily found everywhere as ink sacs are often removed when a squid is cleaned before packaging and/or consumption. It also stains very easily, turning the tender strips of calamari black, so a bib was offered by my server as a courteous precaution. Once again this dish had a Chinese flavour to it, and it was well prepared. As for the squid-ink noodles, they themselves had not strong, distinct flavour comparable to the stir-fried calamari, but it was a delicious take to naturally colouring noodles, something the Italians have best been known with its red, "white" and green pasta. The back bacon helped add some salt along with some firm texture to this dish.

The third course I had was crispy skin Murray cod with celeriac and olive purees and three variations of artichoke. The cod, exclusively a freshwater fish found only in Australia, was marinated and then cooked in two stages, the final one being searing the skin for the crispy finish. Two of the three ways in which the artichoke was prepared involved some form of pickling or vinegar-based dressing and included the stem and, of course, the heart. The third method involved frying the leaves to a light, golden crisp. The cod flaked easily but was still moist, a bit tricky to achieve as most seafood items can be ruined easily by overcooking.

As was the case of my course back at Number 8 in Melbourne, a side of vegetables and/or starch/carbohydrates was blatantly absent from my cod dish, and a few minutes after I was presented my main course I was given a small plate of mixed leaf salad. Without a second though I first finished my fish before tackling the salad, thinking that the Australians must've taken to heart a study I heard about years ago that it's actually healthier to eat your salad/vegetables after your main course instead of before it. Well, when I finished both items I got to talking with my server, and I quickly deduced that it's not as common for fine restaurants in Australia to have sides plated on a main course dish. I can appreciate my server's reluctance in possibly exposing my lack of knowledge about how things may be done differently in Australia, but I came to visit this country not only to see the sights but to learns as many aspect of Australian culture as I could in my short two-week visit here. Well, at least now I'll be a little wiser the next time I visit Australia.

For my fourth and final course, I decided to treat myself to a dessert that Rockpool claimed as its creation since 1984, a slice of its date tart. The tart consists of a layer of dates lining the inside bottom of the tart, and soft custard above it to the brim. The surface had a thin brown crispy layer as though it was lightly torched. The custard itself was only mildly sweet, allowing the dates to play the chief role of providing flavour. The texture of the dates also allowed for a play of contrasts with both the tart crust and the custard. I wouldn't say that I found it as exceptionally memorable a dish as, say, the calamari with squid ink noodles, but that shouldn't be construed as my giving this dish a thumbs-down; this dessert was in fact quite enjoyable. I was also presented some petits-fours, of which I enjoyed the singular piece of dark choclate filled with cherry jelly. The passionfruit marshmallows were quite intriguing; totally unlike store-bought versions, these were soft, fluffy and mildly sweet without any synthetic undertones one can sense in store-bought marshmallows.

The Rocks has revealed a venue where one can have one's foodie urges satisfied and one's taste buds and eyes to be entertained. There are no dramatic view of the harbour from Rockpool, but the kitchen is open and best viewed from its Oyster Bar at the front of the restaurant; there's even a TV in the Oyster Bar, which is more of a relaxed bistro setting compared to the rest of Rockpool, that shows all the activity deeper in the kitchen. This place is definitely worth a visit, and the price for the dinner is worth it as well. And to top it all off for a wonderful evening, one can either stroll along Sydney Harbour or, like I did, take the Mosman Bay ferry and back to see the city light and the lit Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Name: Rockpool
Address: 107 George St., The Rocks, NSW, Australia
Cuisine: Fusion (Mod Oz)
Price Range: Dinner AUS$120-AUS$195
Accessible: Yes

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