Susan Kuro­sawa checks out the re­fur­bished Gar­den Court at Syd­ney’s Sof­i­tel Went­worth Ho­tel

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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

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