Sunday, October 21, 2007
The Last Days of Rockpool
Going to Rockpool is a bit of an Event. It always gets swoony reviews in the Australian foodie press and apparently is one of the Best 40 restaurants in the world (sitting at #33). A recent night there caused enough tastebud-stunning for my friend Tabitha to declare it "the most fun I've ever had".
So leading up to the actual night, I had pre-Rockpool jitters aplenty. I even had a Rockpool calendar countdown happening - not even Christmas gets me that keyed up.
What made it more exciting was learning, just a few days before, that Rockpool was ending its fine dining days: it was to become a casual seafood restaurant in late October. So we'd be one of the last people to enjoy Rockpool in all its fancypants, degustation-serving glory.
Part of the reason for Rockpool dressing itself down, was Neil Perry's tiredness of fine dining stress: he told the Sydney Morning Herald, '"If we take $17,000 a night we break even at Rockpool. If we take $20,000 to $22,000 we make some money. That's how crazy it is."
No wonder he wants to settle down and just serve fish burgers instead.
Still, I'm glad he put up with that "craziness", because I had an awesome night at Rockpool. (It was the fourth foodie excursion for our "Appetite for Degustation" dinner-outing group, but - despite our name - the very first degustation we'd been to).
Shiitake & Enoki Wonton with Konbu and Vegetable Consomme
This was the starting gun of the Vegetarian Tasting Menu and a seductive beginning, that's for sure. This dish had all these unexpected flavours and layers as you spooned your way through it – from the delicate wonton skin to the heavy hit of mushrooms to the gingery broth underneath. It was like deep-sea diving for your tastebuds. I remember us all murmurring in a dazed way when we first ate it. And the deep-fried lotus root on the side tasted like crispy posh chips. Perfect.
Beetroot Various Ways
This looks a tiny bit bloodbathy in this photo but when served in front of you it is actually BEAUTIFUL to look at - intensely bright like some Fauvist painting. I love how there's a beetroot "canvas" of bright red colour with all these vivid little flourishes of vegetables on top. And with all its miniature textures and tastes, it was gorgeous to eat too.
Lotus Root 'Tapioca Sushi' with Ginger Rice Wine Vinegar and Organic Soy Dressing
The sweet tapioca balls popped like silky sweet bubbles in your mouth. It was exquisite and made rice-filled sushi seem dull, tasteless and old-hat in comparison.
Salt & Pepper Silken Tofu with Green Papaya and Cashew Nut Salad
One of the white squares was a lightly battered tofu piece, the other was this foamy space-age rendition of the same ingredient. It was airy and light and tasted like something The Jetsons probably ate. It made my robotic diodes all gooey.
Chestnut Agnalotti with Apples and Cinnamon
This was my friend Chris' favourite dish. With such a sweet ingredient list, the agnolotti tasted like a cross between a home-baked apple pie and savoury parcels of pasta. It was exquisite and homey and a l'il unexpected, like something your Grandma could make, if she had a bit of Iron Chef chutzpah in her.
Best Ever Mushroom & Egg Sandwich: Organic Hen's Egg 60 versus 65 Theory & Sauteed Mushrooms
The one dish that sounds like it's an electronica remix. We asked about the "theory" and it turns out the egg white and the yolks are cooked at totally different temperatures (one at 60, the other at 65) for hours. To be honest, I couldn't taste any tastebud-redefining difference, but the surrounding mushrooms were intensely rich and lingering and the best thing about the dish. (Like a band showing its musical influences, Peach tells me this dish takes a few riffs from El Bulli.)
Parsnip and Cauliflower 'Mac and Cheese' with Peas and Spring Onion
Tagine of Baby Veg, Cauliflower Couscous and Nut-stuffed Date
Now, even though I loved everything else on the menu, these two dishes really lowered the score. It seems disappointing to be fed "macaroni and cheese" (or couscous) at Rockpool, unless it's macaroni made out of truffles or couscous foam or something crazy and impossible to replicate in a plain old domestic kitchen. I wondered if these two rather ordinary dishes were meant to be dull - as a way to calm down your tastebuds - or as my friend Dave Regos said, "maybe it's a palate-resetter, it's resetting the palate". Funnily enough, when I talked to Tabitha, she had the same feelings (and identical conversation) at her Rockpool dinner too.
Parmesan and Apple Sandwich
Luckily though, the palate plateau ended, and this introduction to dessert was homey yet clever and unpredictable too. It reminded me a lot of the sweet-yet-savoury agnolotti we'd sampled earlier.
Rosewater Sorbet with Vanilla Pannacotta
This was Will's fave dish on the menu. The sorbet had a light tingle of sweetness – like lychee-flavoured ice. Sprinkled throughout were segments of strawberries and pistachios, and you dug through these lush and crunchy layers to get to the panna cotta. It was like mining for dessert.
All it said on the menu was “mandarin” - yes, in quotation marks. Which made me think they were going to serve us a banana but claim it was a mandarin. But I was wrong: we were treated to this lovely platter with mandarin sorbet on a tiny mandarin sponge with mandarin clouds (which became zingy little explosions in your mouth) and a “sugar tube” with a mandarin toffee.
Petit fours and coffees
By the end, we were not only stuffed, we were category-5 stuffed. But the passionfruit marshmallows served with tea and coffee were so dreamy that I had to keep sampling. (And I usually don't like marshmallows...! But these were such a tasty counter-argument to all my anti-marshmallow sentiment that I became a born-again marshmallow tragic just like that.)
The food wasn't the only great thing about the night - the staff were wonderful and entertaining - they freely joked with us and never were sniffy or snooty at all. Their service was so spot-on and helpful that it bordered on ESP (particularly two times when I got lost for less than a microsecond during the restaurant: less than a microsecond because that's how long - or little - it took the wait staff to point me in the right direction, without me even asking.)
When friends learn about my Rockpool excursion, they immediately ask, "ooh, how was it?", fired with the excited curiosity reserved for quizzing someone just returned from an overseas holiday. And a trip to Rockpool does feel kinda monumental in that way - it definitely isn't an average dinner.
Which leads to the second most popular question, which is "how much was it?" And it definitely isn't a budget dinner option. I'm a pretty "cheap date", being a vegetarian who isn't a heavy drinker, so my dinner was $150 for veg deg and $10 for drinks and a bit more wallet-emptying for a tip. Still, it's pretty steep if you're not an investment banker - which I ain't, so I survived on No Frills breadcrumbs for quite a while to pay it off. (The night before, my dinner cost $5.20 - for three sad end-of-the-day discounted sushi rolls and a biscuit and tea at French class.) Still, you're paying for quite a palate-blitzing experience, and as a once-in-a-blue-moon event, it's worth it.
For the carnivores who like to get tipsy, a degustation dinner does blink towards the $200 mark (and beyond, depending on how much you like to glug fine wines.)
Rockpool re-opens in its new 'fishy' incarnation in a few weeks. I hope they remember to put something vegemetarian on the menu. And I hope it's just as good as it was before.
Rockpool, 107 George Street, Sydney www.rockpool.com.au