Sunday, January 20, 2008
Bentley Restaurant and Bar, Surry Hills
Sometimes a meal out can be so good you want to laser it into your memory so you can remember it forever. In fact, my first visit to Bentley Restaurant and Bar made my brain light up so much that it inspired me to start a food blog, ensuring that I'd have some digital keepsake of how great the night was. (Alas I didn't have any photos to illustrate it - or rather, I didn't have Will with his fancy army of photo lenses dining with me - which is why it's taken this long to cover.)
So, a bunch of friends decided to tee up to do the degustation at Bentley. I'd never tried a tasting menu before, so I was very excited, especially as vegetarians are often confined to some joyless non-option when ordering at a restaurant ("I'll have the salad... or, the uh, salad"), so being treated to a multi-course ritzy dinner seemed worth getting jitters over.
I won't cover every single dish in forensic detail (otherwise this blog entry would run the length of all Harry Potter books combined), but will drop in some highlights. The vego degustation ($95) begins with Bentley's signature Gazpacho 3 Ways, a trio of such pure colour. It looked so pristine, yet a sip from each glass was a head-buzz of unbelievable flavour. The green tomato and herb gazpacho was a rush of leafy, lush refreshment, the almond milk gazpacho was creamy and lusty, while the tomato and capsicum gazpacho had a zingy salsa-like hit.
The night we were there, the pre-dessert was a Gratte Paille with Raisin, which might have been small, but had the highest fun-to-size ratio of anything I'd eaten before. It came in a tiny dish with a triple-cream soft cheese from Normandy, currant paste and gritty bread crumbs. Matt said it was like a deconstructed pie - a smart observation I'd be too dunderheaded to make myself and he was right - it was all the basic parts of a pie distilled to its most simplest elements. I enjoyed the texture contrasts between the creamy cheese and the sweet raisin and the brittle crumbs. It felt a bit like eating an abstract painting.
The dish that capped it off exquisitely that night was the White Chocolate With Mandarin Ice Cream and Fizz, a plate topped with a tower of sweet chocolate, gritty choc-biscuit-like grounds and citrus fireworks: the ice cream and fizz unleashing these mini-detonations in your mouth. It was the funnest thing I'd ever eaten (until I later had those zingy mandarin clouds at Rockpool).
The only note of disappointment was the Celeriac, Mushroom and Almond ‘Cannelloni’ with Saffron Braised Eschallots, which was a bit too homey and understated for my liking. I guess I prefer the whizz-bang adventurousness of the other dishes.
My friends had the matching wines with their degustation, and even though I don't drink, I really loved being a spectator to that whole experience. Bentley is renowned for its wine selection (Nick Hildebrandt scored the The Good Food Guide Sommelier Award last year), and the restaurant's list of plonk runs up to more than 300. Every time the waiter came out to describe the next wine my friends were going to taste, he would give us a lovely geographic rundown from where it was from (the Rhone region in France, or a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills) and then explain the sensation it would forge on the palate (complex, dry, sweet). I liked how well-travelled the wine list was, and the accompanying stories/taste-prologues. It was like being party to 'Around The World in Nine Wines'.
The bubbly feel of the bar and restaurant are also other pluses you can add to its glowing tally sheet. It's one of the few places where you can have high-end, exciting food and feel like you can enjoy yourself, rather than being stuck in a starched and snooty atmosphere where you stress about being sin-binned forever if you fold your napkin the wrong way. (Also important: the wait staff are really great and definitely don't look down on you simply because you don't have the income of an investment banker.)
On our more recent visit, we didn't have as much time to spend (that degustation night spilled from 8:30pm-1am), so we went a la carte. All the dishes I had were pretty much old-timers from the vego dego menu, but I was pretty happy to revisit them (the gazpacho especially!).
Will had the Lamb Rump with Coffee Bread Sauce and Fig and I couldn't help swiping some of the coffee sauce to taste (it was sweet and swipe-worthy). He suggested I try some of the "magic rice" accompanying his dish, which were strange and crackly grains unlike any I'd tasted before - and also fun to remove from his plate. Will and Dan shared a few meaty tapas picks beforehand too - including the "Popcorn" Chicken with Aioli, which they quickly scooped clean from its serving platter.
We also were treated to a mysterious dish of garlicky peppers, a special kind at the beginning of their season. We were told that only one in ten of the peppers was actually hot, so if you scored the fiery one, it was a sign of good luck. No matter how many Dan and I scoffed, we were convinced Will would win the hot pepper lottery (even though he only ate about two), and funnily enough he did. Not that our greedy stomachs had much to grieve about.
I'd read in Time Out magazine that Bentley was going to hire a food scientist (brilliant!) and asked a waitress if she knew anything about it. She seemed mystified by this revelation but said that the chef - Brent Savage - approaches the kitchen like someone experimenting in a laboratory, perhaps that's what they meant in the mag? I liked her comparison, because eating at Bentley is like being wowed by all the different possibilities that science is capable of.
Dessert felt adventurous too - even if I had the latest variation on the White Chocolate/Ice Cream/Fizz dish I'd had before. This time it was with Apricot Ice Cream, a nice seasonal note. Dan was more of a culinary thrillseeker, opting for the Carrot Cake With Black Olive Sorbet and Coffee Crunch. We were all super-curious about the olive sorbet, because it seemed unlikely dessert material. Yet when I tried it, it was surprisingly sweet and lingering and not as weird and hard-to-stomach as I thought it could be. I returned for a few more strategic swipes from Dan's plate. The coffee crunch was also gritty goodness, worth making away with too. (No one can really fortify their dessert dishes securely enough when I've got my attack-mode cutlery at the ready.)
Because I wasn't quite finished being a greedy guts, I also ordered the Passionfruit Marshmallows . I'd presumptuously assumed that they'd be like the petits fours served at Rockpool, but of course, they weren't at all. I bullied everyone into ordering one each (they were only $2, so not much wallet-risk there), and it was (like everything else on the menu) a startling yet rewarding experience. The marshmallows came on a long serving plate and were still warm and freshly-toasted. If anything, they were more like a generous bite-sized passionfruit souffle, and just as dreamy. And the serve was perfect, because it was the right amount of rich airy passionfruit sweetness, without any of that stomach-clutching "had too much" regret.
I love eating at Bentley because it's got enough edge and thrill to lift your heart beat a little. Yet it's not so inwardly experimental as to lose its sense of imagination and fun. The food is bold, bright and beautiful, like the petite, perfect forms of an Alexander Calder mobile. I always want to go back.
Bentley Restaurant and Bar, 320 Crown Street, Surry Hills, (02) 9332 2344, www.thebentley.com.au