TABLES SHALL WE FRANCE . . .
Susan Kurosawa checks out the refurbished Garden Court at Sydney’s Sofitel Wentworth Hotel
THE best hotel dining rooms play a part in a city’s social history. They are backdrops for celebration and occasion, for proposals (and, yes, propositions) and farewells, even for high drama. There’s the fun of watching politicians and powerbrokers doing deals, of clandestine couples engaged in whispered tete-a-tetes, of that mysterious woman dressed all in black, sipping a martini alone at a corner table.
What was Sydney’s Sheraton Wentworth, and is now the revamped and Frenchflavoured Sofitel, has long held a prominent place in the city’s party scene. Opened in 1966, and one of Sydney’s first truly modern hotels, the crescent-shaped property was once likened by my mother during a birthday dinner there to ‘‘ a flying saucer cut in half’’, and I can think of it in no other way.
In Sydney’s Own, a 25-year anniversary tribute to the hotel, Buzz Kennedy wrote: ‘‘ From virtually the day of its opening it was accepted as the glamorous, vital centre of Sydney life.’’
In the Sheraton Wentworth’s heyday it was the preferred venue for ladies-who-lunch charity balls, and Kennedy’s book recalls the hotel’s claim that the ballroom offered ‘‘ a fabulous dance floor under a full mirrored ceiling: you can watch yourself having a good time’’.
I have a small history of sorts here, too, including a doomed date with a politician, during which I was dressed as a mermaid while he sported more subtle nautical touches. We were costumed for a maritime-themed Cointreau Ball in the 1980s but no one arrived to transfer us to the secret venue so we repaired, defeated, for a Garden Court dinner. At least the waiter had the sense to spirit us, spangled tail and all, to a darkened corner of the restaurant.
There is nothing shadowy about the refitted Garden Court: it’s positively gleaming after a Paris-style makeover. With its fifth-floor roof garden view, it’s a bit like an aerial conservatory. There are striped banquettes, a smart pineapple motif on the walls, white-and-black tiled floor, flickering tealights and candles in glass lanterns at night, open kitchen and French flourishes (and accents) aplenty.
Peut-etre madame would like a special Laguiole French knife for her lamb? Madame would, but she is getting ahead of herself.
Our waiter — French, assured, charming — seats us at a banquette table and produces a sliced baguette, dukkah and olive oil. The menu from Malaysian-born executive chef Jess Ong (ex-Sydney’s Summit) is precisely divided into first and second plates, sides, sweets and cheese; there are little plates for under-12s, too, a sensible inclusion for families staying at the hotel. It’s a menu that would do any stand-alone restaurant proud: the message clearly is that it’s time to rethink stuffy old hotel dining.
From the firsts, there are six oyster varieties ($3.50-$4) and I choose four of my favourites, big and briny specimens from South Australia’s Coffin Bay. They need no adornment but a spritz of juice from a fresh lemon, which comes wrapped in an old-fashioned muslin cosy. This is hardly a test of the kitchen’s mettle but it’s refreshing to see such flexibility and choice: no six or 12-oyster predictability, or just a single variety.
My partner plumps for seared Queensland scallops, celeriac cream, potato wafers and truffle vinaigrette ($20). He’s a chap who knows his scallops and is well pleased by their spring to his fork and the fragrant dressing.
Both these firsts are light and astringent, perfect preludes to heavier mains. Our wineby-the-glass accompaniments are a 2007 Pizzini Rosetta Sangiovese Rose ($10) for me and a flinty-dry 2006 Bollini Pinot Grigio ($12) from Italy for him.
Many restaurants overlook rose by the glass when compiling their lists; this offering from Victoria’s King Valley is the only one listed but it is so splendid that no further choice is needed. There are 22 wines (including sparkling and sticky) by the glass on sommelier Nobuko Okamura’s diverse list: perfectly respectable drops can be had by the bottle from about $40, or there are vintage Dom Perignon blow-outs at close to $5000.
Next, I order Aurora shoulder lamb with morels, mustard cutlets and truffle mash ($39). Which is where the proper Laguiole knife comes in. Aurora grain-fed lamb from Tasmania doesn’t, however, need much more than a bread-and-butter knife to cut; this is the ovine equivalent of wagyu (which is here on Ong’s menu as a 200g serve with a marble score of eight). It is only improved by a glass of 2006 Mac Forbes Pinot Noir ($14), a silken drop from the Yarra Valley.
On the side, to share, hand-cut rustic fries with rosemary pink salt ($9) and a dish dubbed green to green ($9), which is a melange of slender asparagus spears, snap peas, petit pois and soy-tossed broccoli.
For my chap, pork belly with glass
Garden Court Sofitel Wentworth Hotel, 61 Phillip St, Sydney. (02) 9230 0700; www.sofitelsydney.com.au. Open: Lunch and dinner, seven days. Cost: About $200 for two, with wine by the glass. Reasons to return: For Sofitel’s trademark 30-minute lunch of four light courses; for serious attention to Okamura’s 10-page wine list.
Paris-style makeover: The new-look Garden Court restaurant has a bright and breezy feel, main picture; executive chef Jess Ong, right