Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Gantry Restaurant & Bar, Sydney

The Gantry is a new establishment in Sydney, located along the waterfront in Walsh Bay, inside the Pier One Sydney Harbour hotel.  They specialize in on of my favorite cuisines: fresh, local seafood.

On my recent business trip to Sydney, I visited Gantry with a group of 4 other co-workers for dinner on a Monday night.

Yes, I picked a new, waterfront, hotel restaurant, with seafood on a Monday night.  All sorts of red flags should be sounding now.  Going to a restaurant in its first few months of opening isn't usually a recipe for success.  Better to give them time to work out the kinks.  Dining with waterfront views?  Generally pricey and overrated, with the food paling in comparison to the views.  And seafood, or even higher end dining in general, on a Monday, when the executive chef isn't around and seafood is less fresh?  Not ever recommended.  (And to be honest, higher end dining in Sydney in the first place?  Not something I really recommend.  I've kinda ruled it out, choosing to focus on what Sydney does well, which is casual cafes, awesome brunches, and flavorful thai food).  Oh, a hotel restaurant?  Right.

But, here I was, seeking out The Gantry.  I did have some restrictions that lead me there, such as one diner with a nut allergy, which ruled out my thai choices, plus a vegetarian, and the fact that it had to be a Monday, and many places I'd like to go weren't open.  That all said, I actually had decent hopes for The Gantry.

While it had only been open a few months, initial reviews were positive.  The photos I saw of the cuisine looked good.  And, they have a really large cocktail list, another element that mattered to my group.

Thus, The Gantry it was.  Spoiler: I wasn't disappointed, and we even returned with a much larger group to visit the bar later in the week.  They really take quality seriously at The Gantry, and it shows.  I'd be happy to return.

The Setting

As I mentioned, The Gantry is located inside the Pier One Sydney Harbour hotel.  We couldn't find any signs out front, and kinda awkwardly peeked around until someone asked if they could help us, and then they directed us inside.

The front space is a generous lounge, with comfortable seating, dim lighting, and a nice atmosphere.  They serve cocktails, bar snacks, and a more casual menu than the main restaurant here.  It is this area that we returned to a few days later.
Adjacent to the lounge area is a gorgeous bar with seating.
Dining Room.
We were seated in the main dining room, very dimly lit (hence the awful photo, sorry!)  Tables are wooden, without tablecloths, but with cloth napkins, modern.  Our table also had a small lamp and salt and pepper grinders on it.  The vibe was a bit energetic, with nice music playing in the background.

The decor was more casual than I expected given the cuisine, which I appreciated.  It wasn't stuffy at all.  The ambiance matched the service level.  The service was good, far better than most in Sydney, but not fine dining level.  For example, when I left to use the bathroom, my napkin was not refolded.  Crumbs were not scraped away between courses.  But service was attentive, friendly, and polite, and that is what matters.  Water was glasses were kept refilled, sharing plates and utensils were brought between courses, and our needs were perfectly met.
Seafood Counter.
One end of the dining room houses the seafood counter, with the day's offerings visible on ice.  I thought this was a bit gimmicky, but I guess it was nice to see the fresh seafood?
Shellfish: pipis, mussels, scallops, oysters.
The Gantry reminded me a bit of restaurants in San Francisco, in that they pride themselves on the fact that the chef visits the fish market every morning to source the seafood, that produce comes from within close proximity to the city, etc.  This is all totally normal in San Francisco, but not something you see often in Sydney.  They were eager to tell us about their sourcing.

Next to the seafood counter, still out in the dining room, was the cold apps station, where I was able to watch a cook plating up salads and assorted seafood throughout the night.  I always like to watch the action.
The rest of the food came from the main kitchen, which runs along the other wall, not quite open, but you could somewhat see through the pass.

The Executive Chef is Chris Irving, and, just like telling us about the seafood and produce sourcing, our server wanted to tell us about him.  He worked for Gordon Ramsey at some point, and was personal chef to the Beckhams before coming to The Gantry.  Fancy.


POSH Derby. $19.
"Makers Mark smashed with powdered citrus sugar, mint and blood peach puree ~ Served tall and frosted as any great swizzle should be!!! "

I started with a cocktail, and opted for the "POSH Derby", presumably named after POSH (remember, the chef worked for the Beckhams, and if you aren't up on your pop culture, means he worked for Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice).

My first sip certainly delivered a punch.  This was a strong drink, and you could really taste the Maker's Mark.  But it was also very sweet, sweeter than I wanted.  It was somehow both incredibly alcoholic and incredibly sweet, all at once, but not in a balanced way.  The saving grace was the mint, which added a refreshing element.  Luckily, the glass had a generous amount of crushed ice, and as it melted and watered the drink down a bit, I grew to like it more.

Other cocktails enjoyed by the table seemed more successful, and I wish I grabbed some photos, as each was served in an entirely different manner, one with a hand cut ice ball, another quite frothy on top.

The $19 price was in line with Sydney cocktails.
Mocktail, Not Too Sweet.  $12.
As always, Ojan went for a mocktail, and gave his standard guidance of "not too sweet" and "not just fruit juice".

He liked the result, a refreshing ginger based drink, with some serious tartness from yuzu perhaps?  It also had a frothy top.

Savory Food 

The menu is broken into several sections: "The Seafood Counter", Starters, Mains, and Sides.  We of course hit all areas of the menu.
Seafood Counter: Balmain bug, grilled, half. $15.
We started with an item from the Seafood Counter, because it clearly is a focus of the restaurant.  Our choices were oysters, assorted cooked shellfish, or grilled selections of rock lobster, king prawns, or Balmain bugs.

We opted for the Balmain bugs, since they are the most unique to Australia.  You may recall that I've had different bugs a few different times, to varying degrees of success, but I knew Balmain bugs are larger than prawns, smaller than lobster, and are known to be fairly sweet, so I was eager to try them so simply prepared, to really experience the bugs themselves and understand them better.

And indeed, the preparation was simple, and simply presented.  Our half a bug, split open, grilled, and served up on a wooden board with a small garnish of greens and red onions, plus a lemon to drizzle over.

The bug was nicely grilled, as you can see with the char on it, which gave it a great smoky flavor.  The flesh was tender and sweet, not at all rubbery.  It was light and fresh, and I appreciated the little salad on the side.  The lemon definitely enhanced the flavor.

Overall, the best Balmain bug I've had, and I'm glad we tried it, but I wouldn't get it again.  My least favorite item of the night.  Just not really exciting, but it was a nice, light opening to the meal.
Starter: Heirloom tomatoes / Shaw river buffalo cheese / black garlic. $16. 
Moving into the starters, we got two orders of the heirloom tomatoes, since we had one vegetarian and everyone seemed to want to try it.

I didn't intend to really have much of this, as I was saving my stomach space for the upcoming seafood and desserts, but, once everyone started raving about it, I couldn't resist.

The presentation was stunning yet rustic, also served on a wooden platter.

The base was actually grilled bread, not listed on the menu.  Like the Balmain bug, it had a smoky quality to it that I really loved, and it was perfectly oiled up and yet still crispy.

Heirloom tomato chunks came in several colors, and all were quite fresh and ripe.  I was starting to understand the point they make about sourcing great produce, as they really did seem to.  The cheese was creamy and obviously quality.

The most surprising component was the balsamic aioli, in little pools on the platter.  It was super strongly flavored, but went perfectly with the dish, and far more interesting than just balsamic.  You know me, I'm a sucker for creamy sauces.

Tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread, with balsamic and oil is obviously a classic dish, but this was a really beautiful way to compose the dish, and we all really enjoyed it.  I particularly liked the tomato with balsamic aioli, as I used to always snack on tomatoes with mayo, and it reminded me of that, just in a far more flavorful way.  And the smoky bread of course, which just kicked the flavors up a notch from standard toasted bread.

My second favorite dish of the day, and the favorite of several others.
Starter: Spanner crab / green apple / bergamot / radish / sorrel. $22.
We then moved on to another starter (which we actually asked to have served with our mains, a request that was accommodated with no problem).

This was the dish that I had been eying.  I love crab, but I'm used to Dungeness crab in California, and I'm not that familiar with Spanner crab.  I was quite curious, and had read reviews that mention that it was creamy, and, well, you know me and creamy, mayo based things.

It was another stunning presentation, with three generous quenelles of the crab mixture, thin slices of various radishes and apples, garnished with sorrel leaves.  I saw the appetizer chef actually picking garnish from live herb plants near his station, they were that fresh!

This was really, really good.  The crab mixture was creamy, but still felt light and fresh, not too mayo-ed down.  It also had some kick to it, which woke up my palette instantly.  Some of the radish was pickled, which gave an awesome tartness.  The only component I didn't care for was what seemed to be an apple puree doted on the plate.  It complimented the fresh apple slices, but was a bit of a strange consistency for me.

This was beautiful, flavorful, light, and hands down my favorite dish of the meal.   Most certainly the best crab salad I've ever encountered.  I'd get it again in a heartbeat.  The $22 price was very reasonable given the large serving of crab.  It definitely should be shared though, I think the full serve would have been a bit too much, even though I adored it.
Main: Fresh linguini / Field to Feast zucchini flowers / garlic scapes / white wine. $19. (with pipis).
Moving into the real mains,  which included lamb chops, rib eye, duck , or huge sharing plates of lamb shoulder, tomahawk steak, or a whole chicken for the non-seafood fans, plus a single vegetarian choice of pasta.

No one opted for the meats at our table, but our vegetarian diner went for his only option, the pasta.  One other diner also opted for this dish, but added in pipis once the server suggested it.

I tried a pipi out of curiosity, even though I don't tend to like that kind of mollusk.  It was basically like a little clam.

Neither of the folks who picked this dish were particularly impressed, they felt that it lacked flavor and complexity, a sad comparison to the previous dishes.  I didn't try the pasta, so I have no comment.
Main: Petuna sea trout / tamarind / warrigal greens / fennel. $32.
Of course, I was there for the seafood.  Cooked seafood choices were barramundi, sea trout, or flathead fish and chips.  I actually really wanted the fish and chips, and once I saw some served to nearby tables I was a bit sad that I didn't get it, but opted for the sea trout instead.  On previous visits to Sydney I recalled really enjoying the trout.

The trout was very moist, nicely cooked, served skin on, but the skin wasn't crispy as I'd prefer.  It didn't have much flavor or seasoning however, and, being a sauce girl, I somewhat wanted a sauce with it.  There were flavorful components on the plate however, like the onion marmalade.  The flavor in that was incredibly strong, and everyone else loved it, but I didn't like it at all, and didn't see how the crazy strong flavor was supposed to pair with the fish.  It just blew away the delicate nature of the fish for me.

The fennel was a light and refreshing salad on the side, quite fresh, but not particularly exciting.

What was exciting however were the sautéed warrigal greens, hiding under the fish.  This was my first time encountering warrigal greens, indigenous to Australia, and I think not really exported elsewhere?  They were just slightly wilted, perfectly seasoned, and full of flavor.  I would have gladly devoured a huge serving of the greens.

Overall, this was my third pick of the night, but, the greens alone did rank above the tomato starter.  Everything was well prepared, but it just wasn't that interesting.  The $32 price was entirely reasonable for quite a large portion of trout.

I still really wanted to try the fish and chips, or perhaps the fried fish sandwich on the bar menu ...
Side: Beetroot homefries / dill aioli. $8.
And finally, we picked one side dish to share, the beetroot homefries.  These weren't anything that the others would have ordered, but I knew they were supposed to be quite unique.

The chunks of beet had a slightly crispy coating and were deep fried.  The cook on them was just right, they weren't mushy, they weren't too crispy, they weren't too oily.  The others adored these, but to me ... they were just chunks of beets.  Everyone appreciated how hot and fresh they were served as well.

This was Ojan's favorite dish of the night, and we all really liked the creamy dill aioli.


Next, moving on to a part of the evening that I always look forward to: dessert!
Dilmah Peppermint Tea. $4.
Since I love to have a bitter coffee alongside my sweets, but didn't want to drink caffeine at night, I ordered a decaf long black.  My server's face fell.  "I don't think we have decaf ..." she said.  Indeed, they didn't.  This was the first place in Sydney that didn't actually have decaf, which surprised me.  In Tokyo I recall many places not having decaf, but Sydney always has!

I asked about the tea selection instead.  Standard choices of English Breakfast, Chamomile, Earl Grey, and Peppermint were options, so I opted for the mint.  It was Dilmah brand, served in a individual tea pot.  It was fine, but I really wanted coffee.
Ebenezer goat’s milk pudding / rosella / oatmeal crumble / fresh honeycomb. $15.
The dessert menu had only three items on it (besides a cheese platter), but that was fine with me, since I was eying this one.  I love puddings, particularly when combined with other textural components.  I read reviews where it was described as a cross between a dessert and the ultimate comfort breakfast, like a dessert version of a greek yogurt, honey, and fruit parfait.  This all sounded great to me.

The astute reader might still wonder why I'd order this, since it was a goat's milk pudding, and, I hate goat cheese.  Somehow in my head I thought that I wasn't goat's milk adverse, only goat cheese.  Whoops.

I eagerly dug into the creamy pudding, to find ... doh, yup, it tasted goaty.  And I really don't like goaty.  The oatmeal crumble that I thought would add a great crunch was rather soggy.  And the jam, which I guess was rosella jam, was far too sweet, you really had to be careful not too get too much of it in a spoonful.

So even if I didn't have a thing against goat milk, the other components of this also didn't quite work for me.  For once, I wasn't compelled to finish a dessert.
Persimmon parfait / local mascarpone / coconut /  coriander. $15.
Of course, I never get just one dessert.

The menu listed a mango parfait, which I was eying. I love mango, and in particular, mango in Sydney is so, so good. But alas, mango season has come to an end, and even though the printed menu still had mango on it, they changed it out to be persimmon instead. Less exciting for me since persimmon is abundant in San Francisco, but we still opted to get one as our second dessert, since there were 5 of us, and one dessert was clearly not sufficient.

It turned out to be a winner, quite fascinating.

On top was fluffy coconut shaved ice, light, refreshing. The body of the parfait was a mascarpone mousse, also really light, far airer than it looked at initial glance. It was sweet but subtly infused with coriander, which added an interesting additional layer of complex flavor. On top was something crumbly, which I appreciated for the additional texture, although I never quite identified what it was. And of course, the sweet fruity persimmon.

I really liked it overall, but could have done without the ice. But the creamy light mousse, fruit, and crumble were all winners, and I appreciated a good dessert that didn't seem way too decadent. I realize now in writing this up how light many of our options were all night, from the simply grilled Balmain bugs, to the crab salad, to the sea trout, to this. There were heavier options on the menu, like fish and chips, but overall, it really was a nicely balanced menu.
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