Old is new again

Neil Perry has brought back those sym­bolic table­cloths at the latest in­car­na­tion of Syd­ney’s Rock­pool, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

PER­HAPS a very dis­creet Gone Fishin’ sign should be af­fixed to the door of Neil Perry’s cel­e­brated Rock­pool. Its re­cent in­car­na­tion as Rock­pool (fish), a fresh-faced seafood diner, has been junked, with not a jot of re­launch fan­fare, and the orig­i­nal Rock­pool is back, crisp white table­cloths, for­mal flour­ishes and all.

‘‘ The cor­ner­stone of good cook­ing is to source the finest pro­duce.’’ This long-held Perry mantra in­tro­duces the menu, which changes ac­cord­ing to catches of the day but al­ways fo­cuses on seafood. But be­fore get­ting to the listed dishes, there is back­ground on the ori­gin of pro­duce — mul­loway from Syd­ney’s Hawkes­bury, for ex­am­ple, black-lip abalone from Maat­suyker Is­land in Tas­ma­nia and mud crabs from Cairns — and in­for­ma­tion on min­i­mal-stress fish­ing prac­tice and cold chain man­age­ment.

There’s a se­ri­ous­ness to all this, as one would ex­pect from a chef of Perry’s un­de­ni­able tal­ent. His par­al­lel ca­reers as television celebrity chef and Qan­tas in-flight food con­sul­tant have po­si­tioned him well above the sta­tus of restau­ra­teur.

But for a tem­ple of gas­tron­omy, things are still kept sim­ple to the eye at Rock­pool. There’s none of the de­sign drama of Luke Man­gan’s Glass at the Syd­ney Hil­ton or the har­bour views on a plate at Matt Mo­ran’s Aria. Th­ese chefs are his peers, and his keen com­peti­tors, on the fickle Syd­ney din­ing scene, but de­spite the back-pedal to clas­sic Rock­pool, Perry has kept things bistro-sim­ple in feel; the clien­tele is not dressy, the fit-out is un­clut­tered but the at­mos­phere is ef­fort­lessly classy.

So here we are at the new (old) Rock­pool on a nippy Wed­nes­day night. Our ban­quette ta­ble for two is be­side the run­way that leads from the front door of the restau­rant’s slim-line lower space to the broader mez­za­nine be­yond. It’s a good stick­y­beak perch from which to watch the wait­staff in ac­tion and the com­ings and go­ings of a near-full din­ner sit­ting.

I soon re­alise, too, that this po­si­tion is in a handy spot for our waiter, Stephen, to keep an eye on us and our neigh­bours. With radar-at­tuned ef­fi­ciency, he re­fills wa­ter glasses, whisks away plates and en­sures a per­fect pace to pro­ceed­ings. You’d pre­sume Perry would hire the best; in this case, he has.

I start sim­ply with six freshly shucked live oys­ters ($28) served on a long white plate with a muslin­wrapped half of lemon and two dip­ping sauces (which I don’t try; I like my oys­ters to taste of noth­ing but the briny deep). And th­ese spec­i­mens, medium-sized Syd­ney rocks from Bate­mans Bay on the NSW south coast, are fight­ing fresh and ut­terly de­li­cious.

For those who don’t want a for­mal meal, there is an Oys­ter Bar at the front of Rock­pool, tucked be­side the kitchen, where just-shucked Syd­ney rocks are $4 apiece. This is one of the city’s best drop-in din­ing se­crets; Perry’s fish and chips with tartare sauce ($19), green fish curry and rice ($19) or Moroc­can fish burger ($15) are among the choices on a menu of more than a dozen well-priced dishes.

But back to our ta­ble where my part­ner is mak­ing un­seemly grunts as he scoffs his en­tree of hand-picked mud crab and green paw­paw salad with crispy pork, cashews, silken tofu and spicy dress­ing ($45). The sweet crab and as­trin­gent paw­paw have been shred­ded, the lar­dons of pork and salty nuts lib­er­ally scat­tered through this Asian-in­spired as­sem­bly with its pert chim­ney top of cubed tofu.

It is a tri­umph, he an­nounces; later I see a menu note in­di­cat­ing the dish can be or­dered in a veg­e­tar­ian ver­sion. As a non-pork eater, I wish I had seen this

Style and sub­stance: Rock­pool’s Oys­ter Bar, top, ad­joins the restau­rant proper; pas­sion­fruit souf­fle, left; mud crab and green paw­paw salad, right op­tion ear­lier. There are also a num­ber of dishes marked as be­ing avail­able with mod­i­fied in­gre­di­ents: sans shell­fish, for the al­ler­gic, in par­tic­u­lar.

For mains, mine is bass groper fil­let poached in garam masala and co­conut milk with semolina noo­dles ($58). The bass, ac­cord­ing to the list of provi­dores, is from Browns Sea Moun­tain, east of Syd­ney’s Botany Bay, but the flavours sug­gest the fire and fra­grance of Sin­ga­pore’s Lit­tle In­dia. The sauce, poured from a long­han­dled cop­per pan, has the spice and shine of a laksa. It’s the sunny taste of equa­to­rial Asia but doesn’t over­power the firm white fish, served in chunks eas­ily cut with a fork.

My part­ner (in­cred­i­bly) es­chews seafood for slow roast chicken with young veg­eta­bles and rose­mary broth ($42). Herby, rolled paupi­ette-style chicken, crispy-skinned and suc­cu­lent, is sliced and sits in an in­tense re­duc­tion, with teeny new carrots and turnips.

Our sides of green beans with ex­tra vir­gin olive oil and lemon juice ($10) and a half-serve of potato gratin ($12) don’t re­ally com­ple­ment ei­ther of our mains, which shows us up as hogs of the high­est or­der as we none­the­less pol­ish off the lot. Cheese-crusted potato and laksa sauce? Pourquoi pas?

A shared pas­sion­fruit souf­fle ($24) with an oval of ice cream of the same tart fruit, is a joy­ous dis­solve of flavours and a lovely end to the evening.

Through­out we have drunk Foxes Is­land Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Marl­bor­ough by the glass ($12) from a big wine list with a sen­si­ble range of prices and, given the tra­di­tional part­ner­ship of seafood and lighter drops, a ro­bust se­lec­tion of whites.

So this is the Rock­pool that once was, but back bet­ter than ever. Ap­par­ently Perry has plans to open more Syd­ney venues: an Asian eatery and a Rock­pool Bar & Grill in the style of his suc­cess­ful new Melbourne es­tab­lish­ment. Af­ter we leave, we pause to peer through the win­dows by the Oys­ter Bar’s high ta­bles and see a flat-screen television show­ing closed-cir­cuit footage of the Melbourne kitchen in ac­tion.

Me­tres away, the Syd­ney brigade is swathed in steam in the open kitchen. With or with­out a sight­ing of mae­stro Perry, the show goes on. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

Rock­pool 107 Ge­orge St, Syd­ney. (02) 9252 1888; www.rock­pool­syd­ney.com. Open: Lunch, Mon­day to Fri­day; din­ner, Mon­day to Satur­day. Cost: About $250 for two, with wine by the glass. Drink: Rock­pool’s wine list has just been awarded two glasses (out of a max­i­mum three) in Wine Spec­ta­tor. It is the only two-glass restau­rant in Syd­ney and one of 10 in Aus­tralia. Rea­son to re­turn: Among swags of awards, Rock­pool (fish) was named No 49 in S. Pel­le­grino World’s 50 Best Restau­rant Awards in April; evo­lu­tion could well be Perry’s mid­dle name and there’s al­ways a fine ex­cuse to re­turn.

Pic­tures: Jeremy Piper

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