Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rockpool Bar and Grill, Sydney

For our final Saturday night in Sydney, Ojan and I decided to finally re-visit Rockpool Bar & Grill. We went the first time during our first visit to Sydney, and I have a vague memory of sitting in the bar eating a burger, but I don't recall much else. It clearly didn't leave an impression.

So why return? Well, Rockpool Bar & Grill is one of Chef Neil Perry's places in Sydney, and I rather adore his food, even when it is served at the Qantas First Class lounge in the airport. Neil Perry's "flagship" establishment is Rockpool, where only a 4 course $150 or 8 course $185 menu are served. The place sounds fantastic, has been three hats by the Good Food Guide for years, but, we weren't up for such an extended (and pricey) meal.

So Rockpool Bar & Grill it was. Now, the name of this place, combined with the fact that it is an entirely separate establishment from the flagship Rockpool, might lead you to believe that this is, um, a casual bar and grill. It is not, unless items like "Warm Salad of Wood Fire Grilled Quail with Smoked Tomato and Black Olives" or $290 full blood wagyu steaks are your idea of casual bar food. The dining room is a formal affair, with a huge menu focused around seafood and steaks. Reservations, made in advance, are required. It has a coveted two hats from the Good Food Guide.

But the other side of the establishment is actually a bar area (albeit a fancy one), with a more casual menu. While still very upscale, the bar menu is a bit less expensive, and more importantly, no reservations are taken. If you arrive on the earlier side, getting seated is no problem.

So, let's review: "Rockpool" could mean any of 3 establishments: Rockpool, the degustation only flagship down the street, Rockpool Bar & Grill Restaurant, a la carte but formal and high end, and Rockpool Bar & Grill bar area, which is where we headed.

Now, I have to give a bit more context. I had been advocating for visiting Rockpool Bar and Grill pretty much the entire time we were there. Ojan never wanted to go. He also didn't remember it being great, and had no reason to want to go get bar food, or go somewhere fancier, when we could just keep eating casual delicious thai food. I wouldn't say I dragged him there exactly, but, he was certainly not excited, particularly when I told him we were going for hot dogs, onion rings, and dessert.

It was excellent, the best meal of our trip. The food was good, service attentive, and dessert incredible. While my first visit wasn't memorable, I won't forget a couple dishes from this visit for a long time. Ojan talked about it frequently afterwards, wondering why we waited until the end of our trip to go there, mourning that we hadn't gone sooner so we could go multiple times during our trip (he really did propose going there the next night, our final night in Sydney, but, alas, not open on Sundays). We'll obviously return.

There was so much appeal to Rockpool Bar and Grill for me. Bar dining really is ideal for me, particularly at a nicer place like Rockpool Bar and Grill. You get the amazing food (and opportunity to order dessert from the full menu!), but don't need to get quite as dressed up, and can go without a reservation. Service is more casual, the atmosphere is more relaxed, etc. Sure, you miss out on amuse bouches and other little extras, and it isn't the same as fine dining, but, for me, I'd generally rather be comfortable than have all that.

The Setting

While I may not have remembered the food from my first visit to Rockpool Bar and Grill, I did actually remember the building, only because I remember it feeling somewhat ominous. The restaurant is housed inside the City Mutual building, a historic art deco building with an elaborate facade. The interior is also a bit crazy, I don't have photos unfortunately, but I recommend a trip to the bathroom, which involves steep back staircases, long narrow hallways, and a journey into the bowels of the building, past all their stunning private dining areas.
Bar and Chandelier.

We walked past the hostess stand that overlooks the main, formal dining area with its open kitchen straight to the bar area on the side. The bar side has standard bar seating, but also a generous number of tables with chairs. Tables, chairs, even the rug, were all black. Some tables had little candles to add a bit of light, but, overall, it was not a bright room.

We arrived right when they opened, so getting a table was no problem. The room did quickly fill up. The bar itself was mostly a gathering point for pre-dinner drinks, whereas the tables were filled with folks who, like us, just wanted some tasty food. We were seated at a table on the edge of the room, likely hidden to the side since we weren't quite dressed up to Sydney standards. Which was fine with us, our little table was quite cozy.

The bar has a stunning chandelier above it, made from wine glasses (2682 Riedel Riesling glasses to be exact). You can read all about it in the bar menu, as I'm sure people ask constantly about it.


Since Rockpool Bar & Grill is highly Emil-approved, I knew to expect an excellent drink menu. It did not disappoint. Plenty of wines by the glass (including a $150 Shiraz, yes, that is the price for a single glass), classic cocktails (5 that have been on the menu since they opened in 2009), seasonal favorites cocktails (where I focused my time), a "choose your own adventure" martini menu (aka, choose your gin, your vermouth, your style, your garnish), non-alcoholic cocktails, and then pages and pages for spirits, aperitifs, digestifs, and beer.

The bar menu is 40 pages long, only 2 pages of which are dedicated to food. This is a serious bar menu.

I went for cocktails, but, the "exclusive and rare whisky" section certainly jumped out too.
Hoshimotos Royal Punch. $22. 

"A Japanese influenced Champagne Punch. Yuzu infused Sake, Bitter Cherry, Tanqueray. Yuzu Marshmallow "

Our server was ... very eager to take our order. Perhaps because they had just opened and she didn't have any other tables yet, but, she came to take our drink order the moment we sat down. We asked for more time. She gave us a few minutes, but not nearly enough to take in the massive drink menu. In a panic, I rush ordered, and went for the Hoshimotos Royal Punch. I'm really not sure why, I think I saw gin and marshmallow, and somehow glossed over the multiple mentions of yuzu, aka, citrus, aka something I don't really like.

My drink arrived quickly, as the bar wasn't backed up yet. The marshmallow on top, toasted, was a stunner. Ojan immediately tried to grab it to try it. Hands off! The drink also had a straw and a swizzle stick to stir.

I took a few sips and ... doh. Why did I order yuzu? The drink was kinda sweet, and mostly all I could taste was yuzu. Oops.

The marshmallow was great though, toasted to perfection. As soon as I finished my marshmallow, an attentive server whisked the skewer that held it away.

But, I really didn't like the drink. I drank a little, and then tried to dilute the yuzu by adding water. I still didn't like it. Rather than keep "suffering", I decided to just accept my losses, and order another drink. When the server delivered that one, I asked her to take the remainder away, which she did without question.

But then, a few minutes later, she returned to ask if something was wrong with it. I said no, that I just didn't like it, and that it was my fault for ordering it. She didn't ask any follow up questions, and I assumed she accepted my answer and moved on. When our bill arrived, this cocktail was removed. A great gesture on their part, but really, this was all my fault, not theirs!
Smoked Peanut Old Fashioned. $21.

"Peanut Washed Woodford Bourbon stirred with Cherry, Spice, Bitters and served smoking."

For my second drink, I took more time to consider what I wanted, and went for the smoked peanut old fashioned. I wanted something a bit more grown up, not sweet, and, hey, why not have it be smoking too?

A glass was brought to me, a nice heavy glass that I'm sure Emil would approve of, with a orange twist and large cube of ice inside. The cocktail came in another vessel, poured, smoking as promised, into my glass at the table.

I liked this drink quite a bit, and had to be careful not to drink it too quickly, as, after all, it was basically just straight bourbon. I loved the bitterness, the smokiness, the complexity. And hard to ignore the gorgeous ice cube. I'd get it again.
Pablow. $9.
"Pineapple, Pink Grapefruit, Orange, Peychaud’s Bitters and Soda."

Ojan actually had an entire section of the bar menu he could pick from as well, titled "COCKTAILS IN THE NAME OF TEMPERANCE", or, "Non-alcoholic beverages for whenever the stoic urge to abstain takes a hold of you... "

The selection was interesting at least, including an ice tea with sherbet in it and a kombucha. Be Ojan opted for the Pablow, which came beautifully garnished with a large orange slice and chunk of pineapple.

At first he declared it "just juice", but, after a few minutes, he said it grew on him. I didn't try it, as "just juice" wasn't exactly a compelling description and the bar did have watermelon behind it, so, I stayed away from all fruit.

The Food

Moving on to food, the bar menu has two pages devoted to food, including one entire page of small plates (ranging from olives and beef jerky, to finger sandwiches, to buffalo hot wings), 6 sandwiches (including their famous burgers), 4 main plates (wagyu bolognese, the classic Rockpool minute steak, fish, and a beef salad), and a slew of sides. For desserts, it just says that the "complete dessert menu is available" (obviously, a selling point for me, as I am the dessert girl.)

We were pretty happy with the bar menu, as I had been craving good fries and onion rings (I know, don't ask what got into me, but it is what I wanted). I was also excited about the hot dog (yes, you are still reading the right blog, I have a thing for hot dogs ...), but we did also take a glance at the full restaurant menu, from which we could order as well. Our server also let us know it was fine to mix and match, selecting things from either menu as we wanted.

The full restaurant menu is nearly as overwhelming as the 40 page drink menu. Just to start, it had 8 different "cold bar" items (caviar, oysters, fish crudo, yellowfin tartare, etc), 8 "Salads and other things" (4 different salads, steak tartare, grilled baby octopus, etc), and 10 "Hot Starters" (including many grilled and roasted items, plus steamed clams or mussels, fried calamari, and a warm salad). I was interested in the wood fire grilled figs with stracciatella, pistachios, and mint from the hot starters menu, but Ojan nixed it. The wood fire grilled baby octopus with lemon, oregano, capers, and smoked eggplant also sounded pretty good, but again, he nixed. Moving on to main dishes were 5 pastas, 5 "Seafood from the charcoal oven", and 5 "Main Plates". The sautéed abalone, king brown mushroom, and bottarga with maltagliati pasta jumped out, but Ojan wasn't feeling the abalone. I also could have picked the Black Lip abalone with tarragon, konbu, and caper butter main plate, for $70, or, the jaw dropping rock lobster thermidor for $320! The vegetarian main plate option was pumpkin kibbeh with chickpeas, spinach, garlic yoghurt, and pickles, although there was also a veggie pasta, handkerchief pasta with hand pounded pesto, cherry tomato, and ricotta. And THEN all of the main dishes from the wood fired grill and rotisserie, including about 15 different beef choices (all aged in house), plus a few others. Oh, and then the side dishes, including potatoes 4 different ways: potato and cabbage gratin (a classic Neil Perry dish, we had it at the Qantas First class lounge in LAX, sebago potatoes sautéed with Wagyu fat, garlic, and rosemary, potato puree, or hand cut fat chips. Does the charcoal roasted Japanese pumpkin and sweet potato with garlic yogurt count as potato too? If so, five potato dishes. There were also other decadent cheesy creations and some requisite green vegetables.

So many choices. Overwhelming, really. We decided to just stick with the bar menu, plus desserts, to keep it simple, but I did see tables around us mixing and matching. Next time.

I knew I wanted dessert, and we weren't starving, so we thought we were keeping it pretty simple and small by opting to share a salad, two side dishes, and a single hot dog. Um, before we knew it, our table was piled in food. I'd say oops, but, it was delicious, so we didn't exactly mind ...
Onion Rings with House-Made Ketchup. $9.
First up was the onion rings. Like I said, I was craving good onion rings, and figured onion rings at a fancy place would be excellent.

They weren't quite what I wanted. Rather than standard white onion, they were made with red onion. I actually liked that aspect, but, it was a bit different, as they were harsher. The onion was tempura coated, rather than standard breading. Again, fine, except that they were just way too oily. I'm not sure if you can tell from the photo, but they were just drenched in oil (yet somehow still crispy ...). They were also crazy salty.

I wanted to love these, but just didn't. Ojan did like them, although, I think inspired by the tempura batter, he wanted a soy dipping sauce to go with them, rather than the ketchup (more on that ketchup soon). The serving was far more than the two of us wanted, particular as we ordered fries too. They would have been better to share with at least one more person. The $9 price was fine.

I'd skip these next time, and they didn't quite satisfy my onion ring craving.
Hand Cut Chips. $12.
We also ordered the fries, er, chips, mostly because I wanted rings and Ojan wanted fries, so we decided to just get both, particularly since we were sharing a main dish, we figured this wasn't overkill. Shoestring fries were also an option, but we opted for the thicker chips, since in Australia, we tend to love the wedges.

The chips were a somewhat rustic style, skin on, all different sizes. I liked how big they were, almost like wedges rather than fries. They too were salty, with big salt crystals on the exterior, but I really liked the salt level.

What I didn't like however was the house made ketchup. It was soupy, thin, with a strange spicing. I sorta reminded me of pureed chutney? Neither of us liked the ketchup and it really ruined our experience of eating both the rings and the chips.

But I liked the chips, I just needed something better to dunk them in. I called our attentive waitress over, and asked if there was anything else we could use to dip things in. Sure enough, Rockpool Bar and Grill has a "condiment service" that goes along with the steaks, and one of the condiments is barbecue sauce, so she suggested that.

We got a pot of barbecue sauce, and it was pretty good, definitely better than the ketchup. Really though, I wanted aioli.

Anyway, these were pretty good chips, but, alas, needed better sauce.
Radicchio, Cos and Endive Salad with Palm Sugar Vinaigrette. $9.
I'm not quite sure why we ordered a salad, I think we felt a bit guilty ordering fries, rings, and a hot dog and wanted something to balance out our meal. There were three choices of salads, but one had avocado (I'm allergic), and one was just mixed greens (boring), so we opted for this slightly more interesting sounding one.

It was ... not very good. The radicchio and endive were both super bitter, as you'd expect. The bitterness should have been balanced nicely by the palm sugar vinaigrette, except that the salad was incredibly overdressed and was just too sweet. The dressing also just had nothing going on besides the sweet.

Ojan tolerated this a bit more than me, but still said it was a dud due to the "very boring" dressing. We wouldn't get this again.
House Made Chorizo Dog with Jalapeño Hot Sauce. $18. (Split)
And finally, the chorizo dog. OMG. The kitchen nicely split it for us onto two plates, cut evenly in half.

Ojan wasn't exactly thrilled to be ordering a hot dog, but I really wanted it, so he went along with my plan. Let's just say he was glad I insisted. Two bites into it, he proclaimed, "This hot dog alone was worth coming here for".

So, what made it so amazing?

Let's start with the bun, a fluffy brioche roll, toasted crisp. Excellent vehicle for the dog, no wimpy, soggy bun here.

Next, the garnishes. Under the dog was kraut and pickles, adding freshness, crunch, and tang. Excellent. On top was ketchup and mustard, but the real winning element was the jalapeño hot sauce, served on the side. It was spicy and just totally delicious. We both smothered our portions of dog in it.

This hot dog was very, very good. I realize it is just a hot dog. I realize I was at a fancy restaurant, and could have been eating a house aged wood grilled steak or high end sashimi. But this is what I wanted and I loved it. I'd return for another in a heartbeat. So would Ojan.
Warm Blackberry and Almond Pudding with Vanilla Sauce. $23.

After our pile of fries, rings, and hotdog, we were actually totally full. We considered not getting dessert. And really, we were kinda giddy over that hotdog (seriously, so good!). Ojan said he'd have "one or two bites at most" of a dessert. I looked at the dessert menu. The full size desserts were all a commitment. They cost >$20 each, more than our entree. I figured they'd be huge and epic, and way too much for one person at this point.

The dessert menu also had a section of smaller petit fours, but, not a single one of those jumped out ... cupcakes? Lamingtons? Truffles? Meh. I almost walked away. But I couldn't. One dessert had an incredible sounding ice cream served alongside, so I tried to order just a scoop of that. No dice.

I still almost walked away. But ... I'd seen Instagram photos of a few of the desserts, and I just had to try one. I couldn't decide between the waffles or the pudding, but Ojan helped make that decision, saying he had no interest in the waffle dish. We do both love pudding.

Best. Decision. Ever. Even better than the hot dog decision. When we ordered this, Ojan thought "pudding" in the American sense, but I knew this was a pudding in the British sense. Rockpool Bar and Grill always has some form of this dessert on the menu based on seasonal fruit, and during our visit, it was blackberry. Not what I'd ever pick for my fruit or berry of choice, but, that is what our choice was. (Side note: I'm pretty jealous because the current offering is rhubarb and strawberry, much more my style!)

Anyway, what did we have here? This is so hard to describe. It had so many things going on.

At the very bottom was a cake. I didn't really care for that layer, since meh, I'm just not a cake girl. But above that was a light and fluffy layer, airy like a soufflé. It was incredible. I couldn't get over just how fluffy it was. And then, magically, the top was caramelized, like a crème brûlée. The crispy top is one of the reasons I love crème brûlée, so I was thrilled to see that component here in a totally different style of dish.

And then ... the "vanilla sauce", served in a pitcher on the side. The server poured some on tableside, and then left the rest with us. We smothered the entire thing in it. It was incredible, warm, sweet, and actually vanilla flavored. Oh, and yes, there were big huge blackberries in the pudding, which I wasn't into, but even big blackberries and cake didn't ruin this dessert for me.

This was a thing of wonder. A dessert unlike any I'd had before. It was warm, fluffy, sweet, crispy, fruity, creamy ... it was everything, all rolled into one. I'd get it again in a heartbeat. As would Ojan, Mr. "I'm just having one bite". $23 might seem like a lot for a dessert, but, this was entirely worth it. Best dessert I had in a long, long time.
Rockpool Bar & Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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