Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Bentley Restaurant, Sydney

As I've mentioned, we pretty much gave up on fine dining in Sydney after lackluster and overpriced meals at all the heavy hitters: Quay, Tetsuya, Sepia, Marque, Becasse.  Believe me, I tried to do fine dining in Sydney!  So on this visit, we focused on casual restaurants, and had much better success.

But, for our last lunch in town this time around, we decided to go to a fancy meal.  The motivation was a bit silly actually: I wanted to eat kangaroo.  They served kangaroo in my office cafe on a prior visit, and really liked it, so I figured if our office cafe could do it well, a nice restaurant would do it even better.  And where do you find kangaroo on menus in the US?  But, contrary to my stereotypical expectations, I didn't find roo offered in many places in Sydney either.  After looking at a slew of menus, I finally found one place that was well regarded and served kangaroo: Bentley Bar and Restaurant.  Except, I was confused, it was located in the CBD, in the Radisson Blu hotel.  I could have sworn I knew a restaurant by that name in Surry Hills.

A little research revealed the answer.  Both were right.  Bentley used to be located in Surry Hills, but moved.  Interestingly, I never visited the Surry Hills location, even though I lived there for 3 months, and literally walked by every single day.

Anyway, back to Bentley.  Unlike all the rest of our dining on this trip, Bentley is a fancy, pricy place.  We knew this going in, and everyone suited up accordingly; I even put on a dress.  We opted for lunch rather than dinner mostly because we just couldn't fit it into our dinner schedule, and the same menu is served, so we weren't missing out.

Lunch is clearly catered to the business crowd, everyone was in suits, in groups of about 4, which I guess makes sense at this price point.  No one just casually swings in for lunch.  We were seated next to a party of 20ish, which was impressive to watch.  The restaurant did a great job of serving them all simultaneously!

Service was good throughout our meal, very attentive, but I did have a few complaints.  First, dishes were just set down and the name from menu was repeated with no further explanation.  Given how highly conceptualized the dishes were, I would have really liked a better understanding as to what it was I eating.  Second, the pacing was off.  It started off rapidly: bread came before we even ordered, our amuse bouche arrived shortly thereafter, and our first course was served within a reasonable amount of time.  All fine so far.  But the lag before our mains was substantial, and the lag before our desserts even more so.  Our 3 course lunch took nearly 2.5 hours, which we were not expecting, given that we were supposed to be at work.  Not really business lunch appropriate.

Anyway, Bentley was more successful than other fine dining we did in Sydney over the years, but it still wasn't the best food we had.  If I wanted a good meal, I'd just go back to Pinbone, the clear winner of the trip.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what didn't wow me about Bentley.  The quality of the ingredients was evident, and I can't fault the execution of anything: every protein, every vegetable, everything was cooked correctly.  The plating was all well done.  But, I didn't love anything.  There were no memorable dishes.  No perfect bites.  Most dishes had an element or two that felt like they were just trying too hard.  I'm used to elaborate techniques (foams, gels, mousses, snows, etc), so it wasn't the concept of this style of cuisine that didn't work for me, nor the complexity of the dishes, it was that these specific dishes just weren't particularly tasty.  Again, everything was fine, but at this price point, I expected more.
Bar Area Seating.
The space is broken into two levels.  On the first floor entry level are small tables for walk-in bar seating, where they also serve a slightly different menu.  I imagine in the evening this is a bustling place.  For business lunch however, it was largely vacant.
There is also the actual bar, with a few stools, again, vacant mid-day.
Open Kitchen.
The downstairs space is completed by an open kitchen, which I enjoyed watching from my perch in the dining room above.  I'm always fascinated by watching kitchens in action.  We were one of the first parties seated right at 12pm, and it was fun watching as the kitchen swung into action.  Things started off slow, but the pace quickly accelerated.  The staff never seemed frantic though, although they were in constant action by the end.  At one point, I saw a huge blow torch come out, a sign of all the advanced techniques that were to come.
Wine Room.
The new space is much swankier than the space in Surry Hills, decorated in black tones, offset by plenty of light from huge windows.  It is an architecturally interesting space.  I wonder what the ambiance is like in the evening, but during the day, it was quite light, even with the dark accents.

The kitchen and bar are on the first floor, but the dining area, and wine room, are upstairs, overlooking the first floor.

The main feature of the dining room is the huge wine room, on display just like the kitchen.  If I were there for a boring business lunch, I certainly would have had plenty to look at in this environment.
Place Setting.
Tables are wooden and set with classic fine dining settings: two forks, two knives, bread plate with butter knife, but no table cloth.  The napkins were tied with a twine, which was really annoying.  The person seating us made a point of picking them all up and untying them one by one, so it isn't like we had to do it, but still, annoying.  Looks over functionality, a bit of a sign of what was to come.
Iggy's Bread and Butter.
Before we even ordered, bread and butter were brought to the table.  I could smell the sourdough the moment the bread was placed down, so I avoided it completely.  I hate sourdough, and don't understand how it followed me from San Francisco to Sydney!

They don't bake the bread themselves, but source from a local bakery, Iggy's, and proudly tout this fact.  My dining companions enjoyed it, and our bread basket was quickly devoured.  A replacement was offered, but we declined.
As a higher end restaurant, Bentley offers a 10 course tasting menu for $150, available at lunch or dinner.  A vegetarian version is available for $130.

But we were there for a slightly more casual affair, and decided to order a la carte.

The a la carte menu is broken into Starters, Entrees, Mains, Sides, and Desserts.
The starters list was:
  • Oysters
  • Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot
  • Kingfish + Cured Pork Cheek + Apple + Cucumber
  • Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk
  • Charred Beef Tartare + Beetroot + Plum + Cocoa
  • Selection of House Cured Meats
From what I could tell, starters are lighter, mostly raw or cured, and a bit smaller than the Entrees.  Starters ranged from $18-26.

The entree selection was more varied, all cooked, and priced $24-26:
  • Onion Broth + Jerusalem Artichoke + Brillat Savarin
  • Cauliflower Custard + Mushroom +  Black Garlic
  • Calamari + Kohlrabi + Roast Almond + Red Currant
  • Alpine Salmon + Malt + Mandarin + Black Sausage Crumbs
  • Pork Cheek + Garlic and Yoghurt Puree + Radicchio + Jamon
  • Quail + Smoked Celery + White Soy Dressing
For mains, there was a single vegetarian option: Charred Pumpkin + Black Rice + Broad Beans, for $36.  The rest of the mains were priced $42-46, broken down by type of protein.

  • Mulloway + Baby Pink Turnips + Brown Butter
  • Snapper + Clams + Sweetcorn +  Lemon Myrtle Infused Sorrel
Birds + Meat:
  • Duck Breast + Parsnip + Orange + Wattle
  • Veal + Eggplant+ Pumpernickle
  • Kangaroo + Purple Carrot + Riberry Sauce + Native Pepper
And some grilled beef selections, all done on their charcoal grill:
  • Rangers Valley Wagyu Skirt Steak + Fennel + Mustard + Olive
  • O’Connor’s Beef Sirloin + Asparagus + Salsify + Charred Onion
  • O’Connor’s Beef Fillet + Mushroom Broth + Red Kale
I'll get to the dessert menu later on.  As you can see, the dishes were all listed as 3-4 ingredients, leaving much up to our imaginations.
Amuse Bouche.
Immediately after ordering, we were presented with an amuse bouche.  I wasn't expecting this at lunch, but, since the menu is the same as dinner, it does make sense.

The amuse was a linseed toast, with a shiitake eggplant custard, and sesame seeds on top.

It was a delightful bite.  The base was crunchy and hearty.  The custard was creamy and smoky.  The sesame seeds on top added an extra pop of crunch.

We all really enjoyed this, and commented on how it was what we always wanted baba ganoush to be.  It really was like the most flavorful baba ganoush we'd ever had, served on a tasty little cracker.

My second favorite dish of the meal.
Starter: Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot. $18.
For my starter, I had to go for the "Sea Urchin + Crab + Carrot".

As you know, I love uni.  I love crab.  So I was thrilled to see the two items together on the menu, even though I had no idea what to expect.

The dish was set down in front of me.  "Sea urchin, crab, and carrot" the server said.  I looked.  I saw no urchin, but I figured I'd find it as I dug into the dish.

I never found it.

The carrots were evident, piled in large shreds.  Underneath this was a very sweet orange sauce that I believe was also carrot.  In the sauce was little chunks of crab, quite delicate.  The right hand side of the plate was ...  snow.  It was cold and icy, not what I was expecting!  I'm assuming the urchin was in here, but honestly, I didn't taste it.  I wanted lobes of uni, but if I wasn't going to have full lobes evident, I at least expected to taste the strong, distinct taste of uni.  Sadness.

This dish was not at all what I was expecting.  It was light, a good ease into a meal, and the crab was fine, but it didn't come together for me.  I didn't want icy snow, and I didn't want huge shreds of carrot.  My 5th pick of the night, and I clearly wouldn't get this again.
Starter: Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk. $23.
Ojan opted for the "Honeybugs + Sea Blight + Buttermilk".  Well, to be fair, I think I may have made an executive decision that he order this, just because we were really, really curious.  Doesn't it sound a bit horrible?  Bugs and blight?  Tasty!

The honeybugs turned out to be quite tender actually, well cooked.  But they were served on top of a very creamy and tangy buttermilk sauce that totally overwhelmed the dish.  I wanted to actually taste the honeybugs and understand them, but the buttermilk just took over.

The sea blight (a seaweed) was my favorite component, served in fairly large chunks, a bit crunchy, nicely charred.  I loved the charred flavor, and it somewhat reminded me of hearty Hen Of The Woods mushrooms.

I liked this much more than the crab and urchin dish, solely based on the tasty sea blight.  It was my third pick overall.  Price was perhaps a bit high for such a small dish.
Entree: Calamari + Kohlrabi + Roast Almond + Red Currant. $26.
Throughout the trip, I was hooked on calamari and squid.  They seemed to show up on nearly every single menu, and not just fried (although, there was plenty of fried seafood too).  While not rare in the US, they certainly aren't as common here as they seemed in Sydney.  And, it seems, the chefs in Sydney know how to properly prepare them, not just resulting in rubbery, tough pieces.

Thus, the calamari entree kept calling out at me.  But, in our group of four, one person opted to skip all starters and entrees, and order just a main dish.  The other, a vegetarian, ordered a starter and an entree, since he didn't care for the single vegetarian main option.  Ojan and I were already each ordering ordering a starter, and I knew we wanted the kangaroo main, and we all wanted dessert ... but I wanted this too.  It didn't seem right for us to do 4 courses, while others did only 1 or 2 (not that I really wanted a 4 course meal).  So, I decided to order the calamari entree as my main, particularly as it sounded better than the seafood mains anyway.

This was the best decision I made all day.

The calamari was excellent.  It was grilled, with visible grill marks, and the pieces were rolled into little curls.  Like the eggplant in the amuse bouche, and the sea blight in the starter, it had a lovely smoky flavor.  Expertly prepared.

The kohlrabi was four slices, also rolled up.  Light and crunchy, a bit bitter, fresh and tasty.

I believe the roast almond was the light sauce in the bottom, that reminded me slightly of a miso paste, a bit salty and sweet.

The red currants weren't particularly interesting, just a few scattered in the dish.

This was my favorite of the savory dishes, hands down.  I liked the smoky flavor contrasting with the sweet and salty, and the delicate nature of the entire dish.  $26 was again a bit high for the portion size, although as an entree, it was bigger than the starters, and with an amuse bouche, a starter, and dessert on its way, was certainly large enough to satisfy me.
Entree: Cauliflower Custard + Mushroom +  Black Garlic. $24.
Our vegetarian diner also ordered an entree for his main.  If I was able to pick another dish for myself, I would have selected this, as I love custards, mushrooms, and black garlic, so I was glad he ordered it.

On the bottom was the cauliflower custard along with some mushrooms, but on top of that was a crispy component, that he found hard to break through, plus some other soft ingredients.  It was fascinating, but he grew wary of the difficulty of eating it, and deconstructed it for ease of eating.

I stole a bite of the custard, and thought it was creamy and tasty, the cauliflower flavor quite strong.  I think the texture from the crunchy layer probably would have been nice to contrast against it, so I imagine I would have actually enjoyed this dish, but the person who ordered it seemed less than trilled.
Main: Kangaroo + Purple Carrot + Riberry Sauce + Native Pepper. $42.
And finally, the reason we were there: the kangaroo.  They also had a number of beef dishes available, and a duck that our other diner ordered, but, I was there for one thing: kangaroo!

The kangaroo was just how I remembered it.  A tender, lean meat, not very gamey.  They cooked it a nice mid-rare.  The sauce was made from riberry, a native Australian bush ingredient, that was quite tasty and sweet, and went nicely with the meat.  I believe the greens on top were the native pepper leaves.  I really appreciated how they used all native Australian ingredients alongside the kangaroo.

The preparation of this dish was far less innovative than the others.  The purple carrots were just roasted carrots.  There were also some slices of potatoes, again, just roasted.

This was all fine, and again, well prepared, but I didn't love it, making it my forth pick overall.  As a main, it was certainly much larger than the other courses, with three large slices of the kangaroo.
Dessert Menu.
And finally, dessert time!  I was actually quite full at this point, and no one really seemed interested in dessert, but I just couldn't pass it up.  Julie doesn't know how to NOT order dessert.

There were four sweet options:
  • Grilled Peach + Almond + Jasmin
  • Violet Ice Cream + Cocoa Honeycomb + Blueberry
  • Charred Milk Custard + Raspberry + Chervil Sorbet
  • Pineapple Sorbet + Liquorice + Coconut
Plus an assortment of cheeses, available as a selection of 4, or individually.

The dessert I read about in my research was the violet ice cream, so I wanted to order that, and others put in a vote for the charred milk custard, in the same way we all wanted the honeybugs and sea blight ... it just sounded a bit odd, so, why not try it?
Decaf Long Black.
To go along with the dessert, I also ordered a decaf long black, as I love pairing black coffee with sweet desserts.

The coffee came not too long after we ordered, but our desserts too a really, really long time to arrive.  I actually wished at one point that we had decided not to order dessert and had just gone back to the office, as this meal was taking far longer than I expected.  I didn't time it, but I wouldn't have been shocked if it was at least 40 minutes from the time we ordered desserts until they arrived.  My coffee was long gone by then.

The coffee was served in a little cup without a handle.  It was really hot, the cup included.  This made it quite difficult to drink.  Presentation trumps enjoyability, again.

The coffee was fine, but, I struggled with holding it while it was hot, so I tried to drink it slowly so I'd have some with my dessert, but alas, that was a lost cause.
Dessert: Violet Ice-Cream + Cocoa Honeycomb + Blueberry. $20.
And finally, our long awaited dessert.

The violet ice cream was creamy and mildly sweet.  I didn't taste violet exactly, although, I'm not sure I know precisely what violet actually tastes like.

The blueberry was both a jam and fresh berries, and I liked them for the color, but otherwise, they weren't particularly interesting.

The cocoa honeycomb was my favorite component, crunchy and sweet.  I'm a textures girl, so I really liked having something crunchy with the creamy elements, plus, it was really just quite good.  I like honeycomb and always eat as much as possible in Australia (like in the butter at Bills!) since we don't really have it here in the US, but this was my first time having chocolate honeycomb.

Interestingly, the primary element of this dish was not one of the listed ingredients.  In the center pf the dish was a cream (the violet ice cream was just the quenelle on the side, not the large mound in the middle).  The cream was strangely thick and a bit off putting in its texture, and very tangy.  Like the buttermilk in the earlier dish, I felt this tang just took over from the other flavors, and, in the case of this dessert, cut the sweet too much.

No one else liked this, so I ended up eating most of it, but I didn't love it, and wouldn't order it again.
Dessert: Charred Milk Custard + Raspberry + Chervil Sorbet. $20.
And finally, the curiosity dessert.

It was just as fascinating as anticipated.

The charred milk custard was the most unique element, I appreciated the creamy aspect, and yes, it indeed tasted charred!  And ... I liked that flavor.  As you can tell, the theme of grilling and smoky elements is what I enjoyed throughout the meal, from the smoky eggplant amuse, to the grilled sea blight and calamari, to this.  I guess I was in a smoky mood?

The chervil sorbet was ... very herby.  It tasted incredibly healthy.

No one else liked this at all.  One bite and they were all done.  I was ready to follow suit, but ... I can't waste dessert!  It actually grew on me over time, until I reached a point where I appreciated its lightness and refreshing qualities, and yes, I somehow finished this one too.  Yes, I have a dessert problem.

This dish reminded me of the Evergreen dessert from Lumi, with its sorrel sorbet and microgreen garnish, that we had on our first night in Sydney, in that it was a very herby, light dish, incorporating greens into a sorbet and a dessert, but I liked this more.
Dessert: Croagh Patrick Cheddar, Hard Cow’s Milk, Ireland. $10.
Our vegetarian diner was still a bit hungry and wanted some protein, so he ordered one of the cheeses.  It came served with both toasted bread and crackers, plus what we decided must be lemon curd.

I only nibbled on a cracker and dipped it in the curd just to try it, but the others did like the cheese.
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