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